Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 586–595 | Cite as

The capture of attention by entirely irrelevant pictures of calorie-dense foods

  • Corbin A. Cunningham
  • Howard E. Egeth


Inborn preference for palatable energy-dense food is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation. One way this preference manifests itself is through the control of visual attention. In the present study, we investigated how attentional capture is influenced by changes in naturally occurring goal-states, in this case desire for energy-dense foods (typically high fat and/or high sugar). We demonstrate that even when distractors are entirely irrelevant, participants were significantly more distracted by energy-dense foods compared with non-food objects and even low-energy foods. Additionally, we show the lability of these goal-states by having a separate set of participants consume a small amount of calorie-dense food prior to the task. The amount of distraction by the energy-dense food images in this case was significantly reduced and no different than distraction by images of low-energy foods and images of non-food objects. While naturally occurring goal-states can be difficult to ignore, they also are highly flexible.


Attentional capture Irrelevant distractors Energy-dense foods 



The authors thank L. Cheskin, J. Fischer, L. Fischer, K. Cave, M. Spiker, C. Folk, and anonymous reviewers for comments on the paper and guidance on nutrition and health science. Funding for this research was provided by Office of Naval Research Grant No. N000141010278 to H.E.E., and by National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship DGE-1232825 to C.A.C. In addition, the Johns Hopkins University Science of Learning Institute provided a grant to H.E.E. and a fellowship to C.A.C.

Author Contributions

Both authors contributed to the study design. Testing and data collection were performed by C.A.C.. C.A.C analyzed and interpreted the data under the supervision of H.E.E.. C.A.C. drafted the manuscript, and H.E.E. provided critical revisions. Both authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA

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