What Is an Attentional Bias?

attentional bias
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The attentional bias involves the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. This impacts not only the things that we perceive in the environment, but the decisions that we make based upon our perceptions.

What Exactly Is an Attentional Bias?

When you are trying to make an important decision, do you always consider all of the possibilities? While might like to think that we take all the alternatives into consideration, the reality is that we often overlook some options and possible outcomes.

In some cases, our attention becomes focused on just a few of the options while we ignore the rest. This tendency represents a type of cognitive bias known as an attentional bias.

Why Do Attentional Biases Happen?

So why do we pay more attention to certain stimuli and ignore others? Some experts believe that this tendency might have an evolutionary basis. In order to ensure survival, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they paid greater attention to risky things in the environment and ignored things that did not pose a threat. If you have ever been in a frightening situation and experienced what is often referred to as "tunnel vision" in which you became hyper-aware and acutely focused on a specific threat, you can probably see how this tendency can be helpful.

Researchers have found that emotional states can influence attentional bias. Anxious individuals tend to exhibit attentional bias early during information process, while depressed individuals typically show attentional bias when stimuli are presented for a long period of time.

Research on Attentional Biases

One method that has been used to study attentional biases is known as the Stroop test. In this type of test, participants are asked to name the color of a printed word. In experiments, participants are shown words that are either emotionally negative or emotionally neutral.

"Attentional bias is shown if participants take longer to name the colours of emotionally negative words than neutral words on the assumption that the increased naming time occurs because emotionally negative words have to be attended to more than neutral words," explain Eysenck and Keane in their textbook Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook. Essentially, the participants pay more attention to emotionally negative words, so it takes them longer to name the color of these words than those words that require less attention.

What Impact Do Attentional Biases Have?

As you might imagine, this type of bias can have a dramatic impact on the decision-making process and can lead people to make bad or inaccurate choices. Researchers have found that people who have eating disorders tend to pay more attention to stimuli related to food while individuals experiencing drug addictions tend to be hyper-sensitive to drug-related cues. For individuals struggling to recover from an eating disorder or addition, this tendency to pay attention to certain signals while discounting others can make recovery that much more difficult.

The attentional bias can also have an impact on memories. Since people can become overly focused on a single stimulus, they might neglect to notice other aspects of the situation. When recollecting the event later on, memories may be distorted, inaccurate, or incomplete due to this bias.

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References

Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2010). Cognitive psychology: A student's handbook. New York: Psychology Press.

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