Does attentional bias to threat causally contribute to the expression of naturalistic anxiety?

Russell Bridle

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] Over the past several decades substantial research has been conducted investigating the association between attentional bias to emotionally threatening material and anxiety. Tasks such as the emotional Stroop, the dichotic listening task and the visual probe task have been used to document this association, with the visual probe task providing the most direct means of assessing this bias. That this association exists stands beyond contention, however relatively little research has been conducted directly examining the causal nature of this relationship. By using predictive and recovery approaches it is possible to determine how attentional bias and anxiety co vary but not the exact causal nature of this relationship. However, when the visual probe methodology is used attentional bias to threat can be directly manipulated and as such it is possible to determine if attentional bias to threat causally underpins the development and maintenance of anxiety. The purpose of the current research was to deliver an extended attentional training task to anxious individuals by capitalising upon the ability to directly manipulate attentional bias using the visual probe task methodology and assessing the possible therapeutic benefits of such an approach. ...Nevertheless these results provided support for the validity of the causal hypothesis and the technological difficulties associated with administering the task online were ameliorated. Due to the fact that characteristics of both situational and dispositional anxiety are present in a clinical population a revised version of the attentional training task was administered to two groups of non-clinically anxious individuals to determine the impact that avoid threat attentional training has on each of these types of anxiety. High trait anxious students and pregnant women were chosen for this purpose but due to substantial attrition these two experiments failed to provide sufficient evidence to evaluate the causal hypothesis. Two main reasons for this attrition were identified, the motivation of participants and the procedures that were in place to monitor their progress. To ensure that attrition would not compromise future experiments a series of modifications were made and the attentional training program was then readministered to a sample of individuals characterised by dispositional or situational anxiety. A group of self labelled worriers and a sample of Immigrating Singaporean students respectively, were chosen for this purpose. There was no significant influence of avoid threat training on attentional bias for the self labelled worriers, nor any evidence of an attenuation of emotional vulnerability. For the Immigrating Singaporean students, however; there was evidence of a significant reversal of attentional bias to threat post attentional training compared to the control group and a corresponding attenuation of emotional vulnerability and a trend towards a significant attenuation of emotional reactivity. The implications for the causal hypothesis and the therapeutic applicability are discussed as well as several avenues for future research.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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