Attentional biases have been suggested as an important feature in the etiology and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Researchers have developed several paradigms of attentional training intended to reduce attentional biases. Data are scarce but seem to indicate that a daily training for 5 to 7 days modifies the attentional pattern of participants. It is unclear to what extent can these procedures reduce self reported anxiety. They might decrease the person's vulnerability to stress. Therefore it seems important to investigate the effects of attentional training in childhood. The present explorative study looks into the effects of an attentional training procedure on attentional biases of children towards positive and negative stimuli, as well as on sub-clinical anxiety level. Results illustrate that it is possible to use an attentional training procedure to reduce vigilance toward negative information as well as avoidance of positive information, but such an intervention did not generate changes in anxiety levels.
KEYWORDS: attentional biases, attentional training, anxiety, children.
Studies investigating attentional biases and anxiety point to the existence of an association between the two variables, especially in adults. This line of research has looked at both high levels of non-clinical anxiety (trait and state anxiety) and different types of anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, spider phobia, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder). Results from a meta-analytic study in 2007 seem to indicate that, consistently, attentional biases can be observed only in individuals with high levels of anxiety (Bar-Haim, Lamy, Pergamin, Bakermans- Kranenburg, & van IJzendoorn, 2007). Also, studies have reported attentional biases associated with anxiety at both subliminal and supraliminal exposure times (e.g., MacLeod & Rutheford, 1992, Mogg, Bradley, & Hallowell, 1994) suggesting that distortions in attentional processes extend over several stages.
Based on such data, researchers have considered the possibility that attentional biases could be an etiological factor for anxiety problems (for example: MacLeod & Rutherford, 1992; Schmidt, Richey, Buckener, & Timpano, 2009). This idea can also be found in the mainstream models of information processing in anxiety. For example, these theoretical positions consider attentional biases as a possible maintenance factor implicated in a general state of hyperarousal or in the continuous activation of threat schema specific to anxiety (Beck & Clark, 1997; Williams et al., 1988 as cited in Mogg & Bradley, 1998)
Results of studies on the causal role of attentional biases in anxiety
In a special issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2009, MacLeod, Koster and Fox discuss the emerging evidence for the possibility of cognitive bias modification and the effects of such modification in emotional disorders (Koster, Fox, & MacLeod, 2009; MacLeod, Koster, & Fox, 2009). The authors point to the fact that should studies of cognitive modification (attentional biases modification being a subtype) offer evidence for the causal role of cognitive biases in emotional disorders, such evidence could much improve the existing prevention strategies. So far, evidence for the causal role of attentional biases in anxiety comes mostly from studies looking at the effects of attentional training on attention allocation and on the emotional level. An attentional training procedure was first developed by Mathews and MacLeod (2002) in order to see if an attentional bias can be induced in a sample of participants with medium levels of trait anxiety (Clark, MacLeod, & Shirazee, 2008; Eldar, Ricon, & Bar-Haim, 2008; Harris & Menzies, 1998; MacLeod, Soong, Rutherford, & Campbell, 2007; Mathews & MacLeod, 2002). The attentional training procedure is based on the dot probe task modified so that the probe always follows the stimuli toward which attention is to be oriented. …