Two Roads Diverged: Distinct Mechanisms of Attentional Bias Differentially Predict Negative Affect and Persistent Negative Thought

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Abstract

Attentional biases to threatening stimuli have been implicated in various emotional disorders. Theoretical approaches often carry the implicit assumption that various attentional bias measures tap into the same underlying construct, but attention itself is not a unitary mechanism. Most attentional bias tasks—such as the dot probe (DP)—index spatial attention, neglecting other potential attention mechanisms. We compared the DP with emotion-induced blindness (EIB), which appears to be mechanistically distinct, and examined the degree to which these tasks predicted (a) negative affect, (b) persistent negative thought (i.e., worry, rumination), and (c) each other. The 2 tasks did not predict each other, and they uniquely accounted for negative affect in a regression analysis. The relationship between EIB and negative affect was mediated by persistent negative thought, whereas that between the DP and negative affect was not, suggesting that EIB may be more intimately linked than spatial attention with persistent negative thought. Experiment 2 revealed EIB to have a favorable test–retest reliability. Together, these findings underscore the importance of distinguishing between attentional bias mechanisms when constructing theoretical models of, and interventions that target, particular emotional disorders.

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