Can sexually salient stimuli direct attention outside of conscious awareness?

ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Myron Tsikandilakis and Surya Gayet
A recommendation of:

Is conscious perception necessary to direct attention? A replication of Jiang et al. (2006)

Submission: posted 11 October 2023
Recommendation: posted 07 December 2023, validated 07 December 2023
Cite this recommendation as:
Reeder, R. (2023) Can sexually salient stimuli direct attention outside of conscious awareness?. Peer Community in Registered Reports, .


Are attention and consciousness inherently intertwined or distinct aspects of cognition? One report (Jiang et al. 2006) presented clear results in evidence of the latter. In this earlier study, the authors used a continuous flash suppression (CFS) paradigm which presents a colorful pattern to the dominant eye and stimuli of interest to the non-dominant eye; the colorful pattern masks the relevant stimulus from awareness. On each trial, the authors presented a sexually stimulating image and a scrambled image on different sides of a computer screen during CFS. They found that, even though participants were not consciously aware of the images, intact images that matched participants' sexual orientation could still capture attention.
Despite these seemingly clear results, the authors of the current Stage 1 manuscript pointed out that CFS studies are often not replicated, and the paper by Jiang et al. (2006) is no exception. Therefore, Chen et al. (2023) seek to replicate this study using a Bayesian (rather than NHST) analytic approach. This method will allow the authors to determine the strength of evidence for their hypotheses.
In this Stage 1 manuscript, Chen et al. present an introduction that motivates the replication, and a pilot study that replicated the procedure of Jiang et al. (2006) conducted with 21 participants. This led to a well-motivated statistical sampling plan and some small design changes for the main experiment, such as adding a staircasing procedure to remove potential performance ceiling effects, and using less extreme wording for stimulus attractiveness ratings. A clear study design template is presented, detailing the different hypotheses that will be tested, and what different outcomes would indicate.
The Stage 1 submission was evaluated by the recommender and two expert reviewers. Following revisions, the recommender judged that the manuscript met the Stage 1 criteria and awarded in-principle acceptance (IPA).
URL to the preregistered Stage 1 protocol:
Level of bias control achieved: Level 6. No part of the data or evidence that will be used to answer the research question yet exists and no part will be generated until after IPA.
List of eligible PCI RR-friendly journals:

1. Jiang, Y., Costello, P., Fang, F., Huang, M., & He, S. (2006). A gender-and sexual orientation-dependent spatial attentional effect of invisible images. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 17048-17052.
2. Chen, Y.-J., Scott, R.B., & Dienes, Z. (2023). Is conscious perception necessary to direct attention? A replication of Jiang et al. (2006). In principle acceptance of Version 2 by Peer Community in Registered Reports.
Conflict of interest:
The recommender in charge of the evaluation of the article and the reviewers declared that they have no conflict of interest (as defined in the code of conduct of PCI) with the authors or with the content of the article.

Evaluation round #1

DOI or URL of the report:

Version of the report: 1

Author's Reply, 30 Nov 2023

Decision by ORCID_LOGO, posted 28 Nov 2023, validated 28 Nov 2023

I would like to thank the authors for their patience in the review process, and the two expert reviewers who have provided constructive suggestions for this Stage 1 manuscript. As you will see, the reviewers have made some suggestions for improvement prior to data collection. In summary, the reviewers both propose a careful consideration of how best to measure: 1) how unconscious processing can be established, and 2) how to optimally measure whether a priming effect occurs in this design. I agree on these points, and the reviewers have some useful suggestions the authors may wish to consider. My only other comment was one that Dr Tsikandilakis touched on near the end of the review, in terms of considering the potential hurdle of acquiring permission to use the images provided in the appendix. I would suggest stating the strategy that will be taken to make stimuli available in this case.

Reviewed by , 03 Nov 2023

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Reviewed by , 22 Nov 2023

It was a delight to read this pre-registration. I was happy to see that it came with pilot data, and that all analysis steps were well thought out, following the best guidelines at our disposal to date in the field of consciousness science. This is an example for the field.

I do have some suggestions / recommendations, in particular relating to establishing unconscious processing.

First, instead of testing whether the magnitude of their priming effect is larger than zero, the authors plan to test whether it is larger than the 'priming effect' that would be expected by regression to the mean alone (following Shanks' approach). Thus far, however, I don't recall having seen (m)any effect(s) in the literature convincingly passing this test; although I am happy to be convinced otherwise. I therefore fear that, in this regard, the pre-registered analyses might be too conservative, and wonder whether a null effect would be interpretable as evidence of absence. 

Second, from another perspective, the described approach might be too liberal. To replicate the original effect, the researchers would need to (1) establish invisibility of the primes, and (2)  observe a significant priming effect. Following the logic of Meyen and colleagues (2022), however, we would succomb to the interaction fallacy were we to interpret this as evidence for unconscious processing; that is, the fact that effect 1 is significant, and effect 2 is not, does not mean that the difference between these effects is significant (the same holds true for a Bayesian approach). Thus, a key analysis to include would be the paired comparison of the direct task with the indirect task (i.e., is the priming effect stronger - in standardized units - than the visibility of the primes?).

> Meyen, S., Zerweck, I. A., Amado, C., von Luxburg, U., & Franz, V. H. (2022). Advancing research on unconscious priming: When can scientists claim an indirect task advantage?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(1), 65.


Some very minor points:

In the results of the pilot (page 13) it is clearly stated how many participants are excluded, but not how many are included in the analysis.

It is unclear whether the stastistical tests reported about the pilot data already compare the priming effect to the effect of regression to the mean or compare the priming effect to zero.

Page 21, bottom paragraph states "trails" instead of "trials".

The Study Design Template should probably be rotated by 90 degrees in landscape orientation, because the narrow columns imposed by portrait orientation make it very difficult to read.

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