Figure 1811

Attentional bias for examination-relevant stress words as a function of trait anxiety and proximity of an important examination. Based on data in MacLeod and Mathews (1988).

trait anxiety (e.g., the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory). Clinical studies have used patients suffering from various anxiety disorders, including generalised anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In general terms, similar findings have been obtained from normal and clinical populations.

Attentional bias

The existence of attentional bias in anxious individuals has been shown in several studies (see Eysenck, 1997), many of which used the dot-probe task. In this task, two words are presented at the same time, one to an upper and the other to a lower location on a computer screen. On critical trials, one of these words is threat-related and the other is neutral. The allocation of attention is measured by recording speed of detection of a dot which can replace either word. It is assumed that detection latencies are shorter in attended areas.

MacLeod and Mathews (1988) used the dot-probe task. Attentional bias was affected by state anxiety as well as by trait anxiety, in line with the expectations of the moderator approach discussed earlier. High and low trait-anxious students showed no attentional bias towards or away from examination-relevant stress words a long time prior to an important examination (see Figure 18.11). In the week before the examination, when state anxiety levels were elevated, the high trait-anxious students showed attentional bias to the threat-related stimuli, whereas those low in trait anxiety showed bias away from the same stimuli.

Attentional bias has also been studied by the emotional Stroop task. The participants have to name the colours in which words are printed as rapidly as possible. Some of the words are emotional (e.g., stupid; inadequate) whereas othersare neutral. The key prediction is that participantswill take longer to name the colours of emotion-congruent words, because such words will beattended to more than will neutral words. Mostof the studies using normals high in trait anxietyor clinically anxious patients have supported theprediction. In some studies (e.g., Mogg, Kentish,& Bradley, 1993), the threat-related words werepresented subliminally (below the conscious threshold). The emotional Stroop effect was still found,suggesting that attentional bias may involve moreor less automatic processes operating below thelevel of conscious awareness.

There has been some dispute about the appropriate interpretation of findings with the emotional Stroop. As De Ruiter and Brosschot (1994, p. 317), "The increased Stroop interference the result of an attempt to avoid processing the stimulus because it contains emotionally valenced [loaded] information. Attentional bias occurs in the early stages, and cognitive avoidance at later stages."

Interpretive bias

There is convincing evidence that anxious individuals possess an interpretive bias. For example, Eysenck et al. (1987) asked participants to write down the spellings of auditorily presented words. Some of the words were homophones having both a threat-related and a neutral interpretation (e.g., die, dye; pain, pane). They reported a correlation of +0.60 between trait anxiety and the number of threatening homophone interpretations.

A potential problem with the homophone task is that the participants may think of both spellings. In that case, their decision as to which word to write down may involve response bias (e.g., which spelling is more socially desirable?). Eysenck et al. (1991) assessed response bias using ambiguous sentences (e.g., "The doctor examined little Emily's growth"). Patients with generalised anxiety disorder were more likely than

Interpretive bias in high-anxious and low-anxious participants as a function of stress condition (high or low) and context-target delay. Adapted from Calvo and Castillo (1997).

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