Attentional bias

Theorist(s):    J. Mark G. Williams 🇬🇧 F.N. Watts, C. MacLeod, & A. Mathews.
Year:               1997
Publication:   Cognitive psychology and emotional disorders
Field:               Psychology
ISBN:               978-0-471-94430-0

Attentional bias is the tendency for people’s perception to be affected by their recurring thoughts at the time. Attentional biases may explain an individual’s failure to consider alternative possibilities, as specific thoughts guide the train of thought in a certain manner. For example, smokers tend to possess a bias for cigarettes and other smoking-related cues around them, due to the positive thoughts they’ve already attributed between smoking and the cues they were exposed to while smoking. Attentional bias has also been associated with clinically relevant symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

An initial theory was schema theory, in which it was believed schema was biased towards threats, thus threat-related material is always favored in cognitive thinking. Conversely, other individuals have argued that humans are prone to attentional biases at certain points of information processing, which is now a more common topic of controversy.

Psychologist J. Mark G. Williams and colleagues have argued that anxious individuals tend to prioritize threat stimuli during early information processing, and direct their attention away from threats in more strategic stages of processing. This correlates with the vigilance-avoidance pattern, which is when one initially directs attention to threat, however then proceeds to avoid processing details and information in order to avoid an anxious state of mind. Conversely, others theorize that anxiety has little impact on initial detection of threats but has is more significant in modulating the maintenance of attention on the source of the threat. This can be explained by the alternate theory to the vigilance-avoidance pattern, which is that anxious individuals, once processing the threat, struggle to disengage attention from the threat stimuli due to reasons such as fear.

Regardless of the opinions, there have been numerous studies which attempt to find the ultimate explanation, however, there have been results which support both theories, thus making the mechanisms of attention bias an uncertain topic.

Williams, J. M. G., Watts, F. N., MacLeod, C., & Mathews, A., (1997). Cognitive psychology and emotional disorders. pp. 595–603. ISBN 978-0-471-94430-0.

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