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Potentially dangerous stimuli are important contenders for the capture of visual-spatial attention, and it has been suggested that an evolved fear module is preferentially activated by stimuli that are fear relevant in a phylogenetic sense (e.g., snakes, spiders, angry faces). In this study, a visual search task was used to test this hypothesis by directly contrasting phylogenetically (snakes) and ontogenetically (guns) fear-relevant stimuli. Results showed that the modern threat was detected as efficiently as the more ancient threat. Thus, both guns and snakes attracted attention more effectively than neutral stimuli (flowers, mushrooms, and toasters). These results support a threat superiority effect but not one that is preferentially accessed by threat-related stimuli of phylogenetic origin. The results are consistent with the view that faster detection of threat in visual search tasks may be more accurately characterized as relevance superiority effects rather than as threat superiority effects.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





691 - 696


Adolescent, Adult, Animals, Attention, Fear, Female, Firearms, Humans, Male, Middle Aged, Reaction Time, Signal Detection, Psychological, Snakes, Visual Perception