Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

High Levels of Trait Anxiety and Attentional Biases in Preschool and School-Aged Children

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

High Levels of Trait Anxiety and Attentional Biases in Preschool and School-Aged Children

Article excerpt


Attentional biases, consisting of a preferential processing of threatening stimuli, are considered to be either a consequence of anxiety, or an important feature in the etiology and maintenance of anxiety disorders. However, these relationships have received empirical support mostly from studies with adult samples. Therefore, the present study describes the development of a dot-probe task suitable for measuring attentional biases in children aged 5 to 11. We used this task in the first experiment to investigate the association between high levels of anxiety and attentional biases in younger children (5-9 years) and in older ones (10-11 years). Results emphasize the possibility that attentional biases might also take the form of threat avoidance, regardless of children's age and anxiety level. In the second experiment we used two different stimuli exposure times: 1000 milliseconds and 750 milliseconds and, despite this manipulation, results indicated a mixed pattern of avoidance and vigilance similar to the one found in the first experiment.

KEYWORDS: attentional biases, dot-probe task, anxiety, children.


Anxious phenomena like fears, worries and nightmares are quite common in childhood and short-lived most of the times. However, data concerning the prevalence and evolution of anxiety disorders among children points to the conclusion that these types of disorders are most frequent in childhood and also tend to present a high risk of still meeting the diagnostic criteria 8 years after the onset (Muris, 2006; Nauta, 2005). Studies have identified several risk and maintenance factors for high and clinical levels of childhood anxiety such as: behavioral inhibition and other temperamental factors, high aversion sensitivity, negative life events, family conditions, avoidant behaviors and cognitive biases (Field & Lawson, 2003; Lonigan, Vasey, Phillips & Hazen, 2004; Muris, 2006).

Most cognitive models of anxiety stress the importance of the type of emotional information and of the way such information is processed in the etiology and maintenance of these disorders (Bar-Haim, Lamy, Pergamin, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van IJzendoorn, 2007; Beck & Clark, 1997; Mogg & Bradley, 1998). Processing biases are thought to lead to the erroneous interpretation of stimuli and to the underestimation of personal coping resources and of safety features in the environment (Beck & Clark, 1997). Among such biases that have been largely investigated in adult samples are attentional biases in the form of increased attentional vigilance for threat (Bradley, Mogg, & Millar, 2000). As to how these biases operate, there are several perspectives. Some authors consider that because threat oriented schemas are activated in high levels of anxiety, processing biases appear at all stages: encoding, memory processes, and interpretation of stimuli (Beck & Clark, 1997). Another perspective holds that anxious persons have a highly sensitive attentional system so that they automatically orient their attentional resources toward sources of threat. Therefore, biases are conceptualized as abnormalities in the threat-detecting mechanism of anxious persons (Williams, Watts, MacLeod, & Mathews, 1997). A third view considers the time course of attentional allocation in the maintenance of high levels of anxiety and argues that high levels of anxiety are associated with a pattern of vigilance for threat followed by avoidance (Mogg & Bradley, 1998). Finally, a fourth position takes into account the possibility that the observed attentional biases are due to an inability to disengage from the threatening stimuli, rather than high vigilance for such information (Fox, Russo, Bowels, & Dutton, 2001). The delayed disengagement hypothesis put forward by Fox et al. (2001) posits that attention is not directed more efficiently to threat, but that once attended, threatening stimuli tend to hold attention. …

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