While control conditions are vitally important in research, selecting the optimal control condition can be challenging. Problems are likely to arise when the choice of control condition is not tightly guided by the specific question that a given study aims to address. Such problems have become increasingly apparent in experimental psychopathology research investigating the experimental modification of cognitive biases, particularly as the focus of this research has shifted from theoretical questions concerning mechanistic aspects of the association between cognitive bias and emotional vulnerability, to questions that instead concern the clinical efficacy of ‘cognitive bias modification’ (CBM) procedures. We discuss the kinds of control conditions that have typically been employed in CBM research, illustrating how difficulties can arise when changes in the types of research questions asked are not accompanied by changes in the control conditions employed. Crucially, claims made on the basis of comparing active and control conditions within CBM studies should be restricted to those conclusions allowed by the specific control condition employed. CBM studies aiming to establish clinical utility are likely to require quite different control conditions from CBM studies aiming to illuminate mechanisms. Further, conclusions concerning the clinical utility of CBM interventions cannot necessarily be drawn from studies in which the control condition has been chosen to answer questions concerning mechanisms. Appreciating the need to appropriately alter control conditions in the transition from basic mechanisms-focussed investigations to applied clinical research could greatly facilitate the translational process.