Me First? Positioning Self in the Attentional Hierarchy

Sheila J. Cunningham*, Julia Vogt, Douglas Martin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
2 Downloads (Pure)


The attention system that allocates resources across competing aspects of the environment is influenced by biases toward particular types of stimuli, such as cues of threat (e.g., angry-face image), self-reference (e.g., own-face image), and current goals (e.g., food image when hungry). Here, we used dot probe tasks to investigate which of these stimulus types are prioritized in the attentional hierarchy, measuring response latency to dot probes presented in the same location as different face types. In Experiment 1, participants (N = 42) were presented with self, angry, and neutral face images in the dot probe task, which revealed a clear attentional bias for self-images over both angry and neutral images. In Experiment 2, each participant (N = 69) was assigned a self, angry, or neutral goal image for a secondary monitoring task designed to induce a temporary goal, and this image was included in the stimuli presented in the dot probe task. Again, self-cues were found to produce a strong attentional bias, but images associated with temporary goals were found to be the most effective source of attentional bias. Results are discussed in relation to the relative importance of self, threat, and temporary goal cues in the attentional hierarchy.

Public Significance Statement The reported research shows that when different cues in the environment compete for attention, those most relevant to current goals are prioritized, followed by those that are relevant to self. Exploring this order of priority reveals the dynamic nature of attentional biases, which has relevance for the way in which cues are used to attract attention in the real world (e.g., to engage students in learning). While self-prioritization biases have already been applied in this way, the current findings suggest manipulating goal-relevance may be even more effective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-127
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number2
Early online date30 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022


  • attentional bias
  • self
  • threat
  • goals
  • BIAS


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