When we should worry more: Using cognitive bias modification to drive adaptive health behaviour

Lies Notebaert, J. Chrystal, Patrick Clarke, E.A. Holmes, Colin Macleod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


A lack of behavioural engagement in health promotion or disease prevention is a problem across many health domains. In these cases where people face a genuine danger, a reduced focus on threat and low levels of anxiety or worry are maladaptive in terms of promoting protection or prevention behaviour. Therefore, it is possible that increasing the processing of threat will increase worry and thereby enhance engagement in adaptive behaviour. Laboratory studies have shown that cognitive bias modification (CBM) can increase or decrease anxiety and worry when increased versus decreased processing of threat is encouraged. In the current study, CBM for interpretation (CBM-I) is used to target engagement in sun protection behaviour. The goal was to investigate whether inducing a negative rather than a positive interpretation bias for physical threat information can enhance worry elicited when viewing a health campaign video (warning against melanoma skin cancer), and consequently lead to more adaptive behaviour (sun protection). Participants were successfully trained to either adopt a positive or negative interpretation bias using physical threat scenarios. However, contrary to expectations results showed that participants in the positive training condition reported higher levels of worry elicited by the melanoma video than participants in the negative training condition. Video elicited worry was, however, positively correlated with a measure of engagement in sun protection behaviour, suggesting that higher levels of worry do promote adaptive behaviour. These findings imply that more research is needed to determine under which conditions increased versus decreased processing of threat can drive adaptive worry. Various potential explanations for the current findings and suggestions for future research are discussed. © 2014 Notebaert et al.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere85092
Number of pages8
JournalPLoS One
Issue number1
Early online date8 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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