Effects of Physical Salience and Learned Aversive Value on the Deployment of Attention

Tessa Miskimen, “Effects of Physical Salience and Learned Aversive Value on the Deployment of Attention”
Mentors: Deborah Hannula & Fred Helmstetter, Psychology

Recent work from our lab indicates that attention capture can be observed for learned fearful stimuli. However, aversive items in our original work were onsets, distinctive not only based on learned value, but also by their sudden appearance in the search display. In this experiment, we eliminate this potential confound and examine whether capture effects persist. Participants in these experiments search for a target stimulus defined by color during a training phase. They are told to make a single eye movement to the target location as quickly and accurately as possible. Shock delivery was dictated by the color of the target stimulus so that one target becomes a conditional stimulus (CS+) and the other a predictor of relative safety (CS-). Next, participants search for a shape target and occasionally, one of the distractors is either the CS+/-, but no shock administered. Results from Experiment 1 indicate that eye movements during test are made in error more often to the CS+ than the CS- and that this occurs even in the absence of explicit knowledge about shock-color contingencies. However, contingency awareness was assessed using an insufficiently sensitive post-experimental questionnaire. In Experiment 2, we attempt to replicate these results with participants making button responses to indicate how likely they are to be shocked. This approach will permit us to make more definitive claims about capture with and without awareness. Finally, this study will provide context for future studies to investigate the effects of fear conditioning on those with anxiety disorders or PTSD.


  1. Hello and welcome to my presentation!

    My name is Tessa Miskimen and I am a senior at UW-Milwaukee studying pscyhology. The presentation above illustrates a compilation of my 3.5 years of work with Dr. Debbie Hannula studying the learning and memory through eye tracking and fear conditioning. I have been supported through the Office of Undergraduate Research by SURF grants since 2017 and was honored to receive the Senior Excellence in Research Award (SERA) for the 2019-2020 academic year. Being involved in research has truly been the most rewarding, informational, and exciting experience I have been apart of at UWM. In the last few weeks of this semester, I am finishing up my Senior Thesis on this project as well. My post graduation plans include attention graduate school at Marquette University for Clinical Mental Health Counseling to continue to pursue my passion and excitement for psychology and mental health.

    Thank you again for taking the time to learn about my research and experiences. I hope you enjoy my virtual presentation and please reach out to me (miskime2@uwm.edu) or leave a comment here if you have any questions or comments on my research or presentation.

    Thank you again for stopping by!

    -Tessa Miskimen

  2. Thanks for visiting Tessa’s poster, which represents a lot of time spent in the lab for the past several years! Everyone in my group was thrilled to hear that she will attend graduate school at Marquette next fall and we hope that she’ll make the trip across town to visit us in the lab when time permits. Congratulations on your many successes, Tessa!

    -Debbie Hannula

  3. Nice job Tessa. I would have liked an expanded discussion around the conditional stimulus variables. Your narrative was well done and your board clearly laid out. Good job. And congratulations on receiving a SERA award! Wishing you the best in your new academic journey at Marquette.

    1. Hi Dr. Sen,

      Thank you for visiting my presentation! Unfortunately with the time limit, it was hard to fit in all of those details that I would’ve liked to discuss. Here is a more detailed explanation of the conditioning process.

      Unconditioned stimulus: a colored circle
      Aversive stimulus: 500ms electrical shock

      The conditioning process occurs when an unconditioned stimulus (US), such as a red circle, is paired with an aversive stimulus, the 500ms shock.

      Hope that helps!

      Tessa Miskimen

  4. Tessa – very cool to see all the work you put in! I know this was a huge part of your college experience and you should be very proud. Hope you keep in touch from Marquette! 🙂

    1. Thank you for taking the time to watch my presentation, Rachael! It really means a lot to me, of course I’ll stay in touch and pop by for the occasional visit once things are back to normal!

  5. Congratulations on your hard work and deserved recognition! I enjoyed watching your presentation and thought it was overall clearly explained for those who may be more unfamiliar with the material. I would love to know more about how your results might relate to and impact future studies on anxiety disorders and PTSD.

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thank you for watching my presentation! To answer your question, fear conditioning is often used as a model for anxiety and PTSD. So, by studying fear conditioning, we can gain better understandings of how we learn and retain information of fearful stimuli. For example, imagine you are at a bus stop when someone stops and robs your purse off of you. After this episode, you may experience heightened anxiety and awareness for bus stops, even if it wasn’t the one you got robbed at. Here, you learned a fearful response and generalized it to all bus stops. As a consequence, you’re now more aware of them.

      In fear conditioning studies, neutral stimuli (colored circles) are paired with aversive stimuli (shock) to illicit a reaction. Much like the bus stop remained neutral until something scary happened there. The current study isn’t directly related to PTSD and Anxiety research, but future studies modeled after this one aim to examine fear conditioning effects using fMRI technology to understand the processes in the brain responsible for fear learning.

      Hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *