The Cost of Attention Bias

Individuals who have anxiety or phobias are highly sensitive to what they perceive to be threatening stimuli. When a person with one of these disorders enters a situation, they may have difficulty focusing because they are automatically hyper attuned to the potential danger in the setting.

In addition, studies have shown that individuals with anxiety or phobias can be extremely sensitive to others' facial expressions. Research has shown evidence that when a person has one of the disorders, they are likely to have an attention bias toward faces that express anger or a threatening face.

The studies have also shown that when individuals with anxiety or phobias encounter a happy, neutral or threatening face, they will tend to focus their attention on the face that suggests a threat.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida sought to better understand this phenomenon, and specifically the cost to the individual. The consequences of these types of behaviors might provide more information about how certain mental disorders develop. The study was led by Matthias J. Wieser of the Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention at the University of Florida.

The study focused on patients diagnosed with social anxiety. The 34 participants were comprised of patients with moderate levels of social anxiety and those with more severe anxiety. The participants were presented with a happy, neutral or angry face while they were completing a cognitive task.

The study's objective was to find out whether those patients who had higher levels of anxiety would differ in their performance on the cognitive task as a result of an increased attention bias. Wieser and colleagues found that the participants with more severe anxiety scored lower on the cognitive task when compared with those who had a lower level of anxiety.

In addition, those with more severe anxiety shifted attention to the threatening faces more quickly than those with more moderate levels of anxiety, and they focused on the angry face longer. The low-anxiety participants did not focus as immediately on the angry face and they did not stay focused as long. When they did focus for a long time on a face, it was more likely to be on a happy or neutral face.

The findings illustrate one aspect of the cost of attention bias present in those with severe anxiety disorders. Individuals who suffer from a high level of anxiety may struggle to focus on other important social cues because they are zeroed in on the appearance of a perceived threatening stimulus. This finding was especially true when both a facial stimulus and a secondary task were in a single line of vision.

Wieser also notes that the findings demonstrate that all levels of anxiety are evident in their association with attention bias. For instance, those without symptoms of anxiety disorders are drawn to happy faces, but experience apprehension when they are introduced to an angry face.

The findings for the study appear in a recent issue of the journal Emotion.

Posted on December 29th, 2012

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