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Out of Sight, but Not Out of Mind? A Behavioral and Electrophysiological Investigation of Food-Related Attentional Bias in Perception and Working Memory

Zachary Jay Cole, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Obesity and lack of physical activity are two of the primary causes of preventable death across the globe. In general, obese individuals show a bias in attention toward food-related visual cues. This bias appears to result from a complex interplay between individual differences in reward sensitivity and attentional control. While some indications are that obese individuals tend to show poor attentional control and emotion regulation, the cognitive and neural mechanisms supporting these abilities are also affected by physical health factors such as physical activity and fitness. Additionally, physically active or fit individuals are also shown to bias attention toward healthier visual cues than sedentary or unfit individuals, referred to as motivational congruency. The current literature considers food-related attentional bias and the influence of physical activity and fitness almost entirely within the context of controlling attention to external factors (i.e., perceptual attention), but not attention to internal thoughts and feelings (i.e., reflective attention). The present study bridges this gap in the literature by investigating the effect of weight status and physical activity level on attentional bias to food and health-related scene pictures across mirrored perceptual and reflective attention tasks. Response times did not provide any indications of attentional bias toward food items, nor motivational congruency for the perceptual or reflective tasks. Eye tracking and ERP data were able to provide more fine-grained observations of the attentional bias effects by differentiating early approach and avoidance of the stimuli. For the perceptual task, the eye tracking and ERP effects were largely attributable to the task manipulation rather than to individual differences in weight status or physical activity level, although overweight participants showed some evidence for lower attentional control in general. For the reflective attention task, the eye movements and ERPs provided tentative evidence for food-related attentional bias, and a motivational congruency effect in the opposite direction to what was expected. Although the findings from this study are encouraging, the study faced significant limitations, requiring thoughtful replication studies to confirm the conclusions drawn from the current study.

Subject Area

Neurosciences|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Cole, Zachary Jay, "Out of Sight, but Not Out of Mind? A Behavioral and Electrophysiological Investigation of Food-Related Attentional Bias in Perception and Working Memory" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI30575068.