Differential effects of intensity and response preparation components of acoustic warning signals

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It is known that the increase of intensity on a warning signal (WS) usually decreases reaction times to targets and occasionally is accompanied by a startle reflex reaction that influences the speediness of response execution. In a simple detection task (Experiment 1), a detection task with catch trials (Experiment 2) and a Go-NoGo discrimination task (Experiment 3), we studied the relationship between response preparation and alerting mechanisms operating upon the presentation of warning signals. A WS was presented either synchronously with the target (simultaneous condition) or 1400 ms before it (delayed condition). In all three experiments, the intensity of the WS and the simultaneity between WS and target were orthogonally manipulated. Results confirmed shorter reaction times by increasing the WS intensity. In Experiment 1, all conditions presented a clear acoustic intensity effect. In Experiment 2 we observed shorter reaction times in higher intensity conditions but only when the WS and the target were presented simultaneously. In Experiment 3, the intensity effect was observed only when the WS preceded the target. In all experiments, trials where the WS triggered a startle reflex showed a systematic increase in reaction time, which was independent of response preparation and task demands. In general, our findings suggest that response preparation modulates the alerting mechanisms, as a function of task set, but not the startle reflex. The dissociation between intensity, response preparation and startle supports the interdependence between these mechanisms elicited by the presentation of warning signals.

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