Spider Fearful Individuals Attend to Threat, Then Quickly Avoid It: Evidence From Eye Movements

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According to cognitive models of anxiety, anxiety patients exhibit an early reflexive attentional bias toward threat stimuli, which may be followed by intentional avoidance of these stimuli. To determine the time course of attentional vigilance and avoidance, the authors conducted an eye-tracking study in which 22 highly spider fearful participants (SFs) and 23 nonanxious control participants (NACs) studied groups of 4 pictures (spider, butterfly, dog, and cat). The authors found that the very first fixation was on a spider picture more often in SFs than in NACs. However, SFs quickly moved their eyes away from the spider they had fixated first, yielding shorter gaze durations than NACs. Afterward, SFs exhibited shorter gaze durations on spiders than NACs for the rest of the 1-min presentation time. This early reflexive attentional bias toward threat followed by avoidance of threat may explain earlier failures to find attentional biases in anxiety.

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