Attentional impairment in anxiety: inefficiency in expanding the scope of attention

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Abstract

Background

The ability to attend to relevant visual information in a proficient manner is central to most day-to-day tasks. Research suggests, however, that this ability is compromised by anxiety such that anxiety results in narrowing the focus of visual attention.

Method

In the current study (N = 58), we used the Attention Scope Task [1999: Gerontology 45:102–109] to examine the hypothesis that low-anxious individuals would be more proficient than high-anxious individuals in their scope of attention, that is, high-anxious individuals would have a larger scope of visual attention than low-anxious individuals. Additionally, we hypothesized that low-anxious individuals would be more proficient than high-anxious individuals in their ability to expand their scope of attention.

Results

Results revealed that, compared to low-anxious individuals, high-anxious individuals were impaired only in their ability to expand their scope of attention from a small area to a larger one. Inclusion of a depressed control group in the study revealed that our findings are specific to the effect of anxiety and not depressive symptoms.

Conclusion

Thus, high-anxious individuals do not appear to have a smaller absolute scope of attention but instead seem to have difficulty expanding their attention scope dynamically. We discuss our results in relation to cognitive inflexibility in anxiety. Depression and Anxiety 0:1–7, 2011.

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