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What Is an Attentional Bias?

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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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Attentional bias is an occurrence wherein a person focuses more of his attention toward a specific stimulus or a sensory cue. Often, this leads to a poor sense of judgment or an incomplete recollection of a certain event or memory. Attentional biases can also lead to poor decision-making, as the person already has a bias towards one stimulus and may more likely base his decision on that preference.

Some psychologists believe that humans already have a tendency to carry out an attentional bias in some situations due to the “evolution of human intelligence” and the need to survive. For this reason, people usually give more of their attention to stimuli that pose a threat to them, such as a gun when a person is being mugged on the street. This “hyperattention” is usually associated with sensory responses such as a tunnel vision, in which the frightened person temporarily loses his peripheral vision and focuses on the threatening object. It also usually sets off some physiological responses such as an adrenaline rush and an increased heart rate, even a neurological reaction that allows the person to have a faster reflex when the situation becomes worse.

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A moderate level of attentional bias may be innate in humans, but an elevated level may be a symptom or a result of a psychological disorder. One approach to measuring this bias is the “Stroop task.” In this test, color-pertaining words are written out in different colors; for example the word “blue” is written out in the color yellow. The patient is then asked to say out loud the color of the word, not the word itself; in the aforementioned example, the correct answer would be “yellow” and not “blue.” A person with a high level of attentional bias may take longer to answer correctly. In some case studies, it was shown that participants who had severe anxieties and phobias had a difficult time saying the color of some suggestive words such as “spider” or “blood,” as their inclination to focus on the word itself gets in the way of getting the main task done.

Attentional bias has also been studied not only in relation to phobias and psychological disorders, but also in the context of alcoholism and substance abuse. In separate experiments, participants, consisting of drug users and drinkers, exhibited more responses to words or objects that implied drugs or alcohol, or had an increased craving for the substances. These results may give an explanation as to why it is helpful for recovering substance abusers to avoid any situations involving drugs or alcohol.

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