Food Catches the Eye but Not for Everyone: A BMI-Contingent Attentional Bias in Rapid Detection of Nutriments

Lauri Nummenmaa, Jari K. Hietanen, Manuel G. Calvo, Jukka Hyönä

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An organism's survival depends crucially on its ability to detect and acquire nutriment. Attention circuits interact with cognitive and motivational systems to facilitate detection of salient sensory events in the environment. Here we show that the human attentional system is tuned to detect food targets among nonfood items. In two visual search experiments participants searched for discrepant food targets embedded in an array of nonfood distracters or vice versa. Detection times were faster when targets were food rather than nonfood items, and the detection advantage for food items showed a significant negative correlation with Body Mass Index (BMI). Also, eye tracking during searching within arrays of visually homogenous food and nonfood targets demonstrated that the BMI-contingent attentional bias was due to rapid capturing of the eyes by food items in individuals with low BMI. However, BMI was not associated with decision times after the discrepant food item was fixated. The results suggest that visual attention is biased towards foods, and that individual differences in energy consumption - as indexed by BMI - are associated with differential attentional effects related to foods. We speculate that such differences may constitute an important risk factor for gaining weight.
Original languageFinnish
Article numbere19215
Pages (from-to)1-7
JournalPloS one
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2011
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • BMI contingent attentional bias
  • food
  • rapid detection of nutriments

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