Visual attention

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Visual attentional capture predicts belief in a meaningful world

Paola Bressan, Peter Kramer, Mara Germani

Here we show that the automatic, involuntary process of attentional capture is predictive of beliefs that are typically considered as much more complex and higher-level. Whereas some beliefs are well supported by evidence, others, such as the belief that coincidences occur for a reason, are not. We argue that the tendency to assign meaning to coincidences is a byproduct of an adaptive system that creates and maintains cognitive schemata, and automatically directs attention to violations of a currently active schema. Earlier studies have shown that, within subjects, attentional capture increases with schema strength. Yet, between-subjects effects could exist too: whereas each of us has schemata of various strengths, most likely different individuals are differently inclined to maintain strong or weak ones. Since schemata can be interpreted as beliefs, we predict more attentional capture for subjects with stronger beliefs than for subjects with weaker ones. We measured visual attentional capture in a reaction time experiment, and correlated it with scores on questionnaires about religious and other beliefs and about meaningfulness and surprisingness of coincidences. We found that visual attentional capture predicts a belief in meaningfulness of coincidences, and that this belief mediates a relationship between visual attentional capture and religiosity. Remarkably, strong believers were more disturbed by schema violations than weak believers, and yet appeared less aware of the disrupting events. We conclude that (a) religious people have a stronger belief in meaningfulness of coincidences, indicative of a more general tendency to maintain strong schemata, and that (b) this belief leads them to suppress, ignore, or forget information that has demonstrably captured their attention, but happens to be inconsistent with their schemata.

Bressan, P., Kramer, P., & Germani, M. (2008). Visual attentional capture predicts belief in a meaningful world. Cortex, 44, 1299-1306.