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Image by Laura College

Threat Processing and the DIP Model

Distinguishing Threat from Negative Valence

The Dual Implicit Process (DIP) Model


I have developed the dual implicit process (DIP) model, which describes two functionally distinct and serially-linked automatic evaluative processes: the first automatic (or implicit) process (i1) is solely oriented toward evolutionarily derived and socially learned threats to bodily harm. This initial process precedes and potentially influences the temporally subsequent automatic (or implicit) process (i2) that encompasses the full evaluative continuum (positive to negative) and includes evaluative information beyond mere threat. These two implicit processes precede and potentially influence

explicit and controlled judgments and behaviors. All of these processes feed information forward and back to influence each other. The way that this dual implicit processing occurs is by taking advantage of an evolutionarily adapted dual route for processing 

information. In broad terms, humans have a quick and dirty path for rapidly processing and responding to perceived threats, and another more cortical path that provides more nuanced information. By incorporating into dual process models what we argue is a qualitative difference between automatic threat and other automatic evaluative processing, the DIP model advances our understanding of the entire evaluative process. Instead of lumping automatic prejudice, food cravings, phobias, intimate partner violence, and addictions into the same “implicit” box, we propose that some stimuli and events—specifically those indicating an immediate threat of bodily harm—are processed in a unique fashion.


March, D. S., Gaertner, L., & Olson, M. A. (2018). On the prioritized processing of threat in a Dual Implicit Process model of evaluation. Psychological Inquiry, 19, 1-13.

March, D. S., Gaertner, L., & Olson, M. A. (2018). Clarifying the explanatory scope of the Dual Implicit Process model. Psychological Inquiry, 19, 37-43.

Threat Processing

Given the evolutionary significance of survival, the mind might be particularly sensitive (in terms of strength and speed of reaction) to stimuli that pose an immediate threat to physical harm. To rectify limitations in past research, I pilot-tested stimuli to obtain images that are threatening, nonthreatening-negative, positive, or neutral. The important thing about these images is that while both the threatening and negative images are indeed negative in valence, only the threatening images contain actual survival threats. That way, any difference in reactions to these two image sets is not due to their valence, since they are both equally negative, but due to their different threat-relevance.

These images and valence/arousal ratings can be accessed by downloading this folder.


I used these images in three studies using a visual search task, a facial electromyography paradigm (i.e., the startle-eyeblink paradigm), and eye-tracking. In the figure to the right, you can see in the top panel (a) that participants were faster to detect a threatening than nonthreatening-negative image when each was embedded among positive or neutral images. Note the difference in the red and gray bar. Regardless of whether the threatening and negative image was embedded in positive or neutral distractors, people found the threatening image faster. In the middle panel (b) you can see that people oriented their initial gaze more frequently toward threatening than nonthreatening-negative, positive, or neutral images. Note the three red bars all overwhelmingly show that people more often found the threat first. And in the bottom panel (c) you can see that people evidenced larger startle-eyeblinks (a measure of defensive responding) to threatening than to nonthreatening-negative, positive, or neutral images.

I have also presented these images subliminally and measured several physiological and self-reported responses. In the figure to the right, you can see in the top panel that people had larger skin conductance responses over time to threatening stimuli while responses among the other classes of stimuli did not differ from each other. In the middle panel, you can see that, like the above study using visible stimuli, people blinked harder when presented with a subliminal threatening image, and did not blink differentially when presented with other classes of images. Note that the red bar on the left is higher than the other three, which do not statistically differ from each other. Lastly, in the bottom panel, people rated how "good" or "bad" was the subliminally presented stimulus. Here you can see that people rated the threat (red bad) as more bad than the other three, which once again did not statistically differ from each other.


Taken together, this research indicates that the mind initially responds more strongly and quickly to threatening than nonthreatening-negative (and positive and neutral) stimuli and highlights the nuanced way disparate types of negatively valenced stimuli are evaluated. It also suggests that integrating what appears to be a human sensitivity to threat into social cognitive processes of evaluation in the form of a Dual Implicit Process model could account for a wider array of social functioning.

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