Signals for reward or punishment attract attention preferentially, a principle termed value-modulated attention capture (VMAC). The mechanisms that govern the allocation of attention can be described with a terminology that is more often applied to the control of overt behaviors, namely, the distinction between instrumental and Pavlovian control, and between model-free and model-based control. Although instrumental control of VMAC can be either model-free or model-based, it is not known whether Pavlovian control of VMAC can be model-based. To decide whether this is possible, we measured steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEPs) while 20 healthy adults took part in a novel task. During the learning stage, participants underwent aversive threat conditioning with two conditioned stimuli (CSs): one that predicted pain (CS+) and one that predicted safety (CS−). Instructions given before the test stage allowed participants to infer whether novel, ambiguous CSs (new_CS+/new_CS−) were threatening or safe. Correct inference required combining stored internal representations and new propositional information, the hallmark of model-based control. SSVEP amplitudes quantified the amount of attention allocated to novel CSs on their very first presentation, before they were ever reinforced. We found that SSVEPs were higher for new_CS+ than new_CS−. This result is potentially indicative of model-based Pavlovian control of VMAC, but additional controls are necessary to verify this conclusively. This result underlines the potential transformative role of information and inference in emotion regulation.

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