The shape of threat: Simple geometric forms evoke rapid and sustained capture of attention.


Previous work has indicated that simple geometric shapes underlying facial expressions are capable of conveying emotional meaning. Specifically, a series of studies found that a simple shape, a downwardpointing “V,” which is similar to the geometric configuration of the face in angry expressions, is perceived as threatening. A parallel line of research has determined that threatening stimuli more readily capture attention. In five experiments, the authors sought to determine whether this preferential processing was also present for the simple geometric form of a downward-pointing “V.” Using a visual search paradigm, across these experiments the authors found that, when embedded in a field of other shapes, downward-pointing V’s were detected faster and, in some cases, more accurately than identical shapes pointing upward. These findings indicate that the meaning of threat can be conveyed rapidly with minimal stimulus detail. In addition, in some cases, during trials of homogeneous fields of stimuli, fields of downward-pointing V’s led to slower response times, suggesting that this shape’s ability to capture attention may also extend to difficulty in disengaging attention as well.


Christine L Larson
Joel Aronoff
Jeffrey J. Stearns