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Cognitive bias modification(CBM) is a form of attentional retraining.

The attentional bias is one of several different cognitive biases. The attentional bias is the tendency of certain salient cues in a person's environment to preferentially draw and/or hold the person's attention. For example, individuals with anxiety disorders demonstrate an automatic attentional bias towards threatening cues in their environment and drug users and addicts demonstrate an automatic attentional bias towards drug related cues in their environment.[1][2]

File:Visual Probe Task on a PDA.jpg
The rise of research in cognitive bias modification has led to the recent publication of a special issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology focusing on the methods and technologies used for cognitive bias modification in psychopathology.[3] Attentional retraining as cognitive bias modification is predicated on the observed attentional bias evident in psychopathology. The most common task used to retrain attention in psychopathologies is the dot-probe task developed originally by Macleod et al. (1986). In this task two stimuli are briefly presented on screen. One of the stimuli is emotionally salient (a drug cue or threat cue) and the other is neutral. Stimuli (usually words or images) are presented for about 500 milliseconds and then one of the stimuli is replaced by a probe to which the participant must respond. Required responses are usually to indicate what side of the screen the probe is on or to indicate which direction the probe (an arrow in this case) is pointing. The attentional bias is indicated by the difference in reaction time to the probe after it replaces a salient cue versus the reaction time to respond to a cue that replaces the neutral cue. Usually, the anxious participant will be faster in responding to probes replacing salient stimuli than those replacing neutral stimuli. This suggests their attention was drawn preferentially by the previously presented salient stimuli.

Attentional retraining attempts to retrain this automatic attentional process by using the dot-probe task and having the probe replace the neutral stimuli 100% of the time. Thus, the participant learns an implicit if-then rule: if both salient and neutral stimuli are present, then attend preferentially to the neutral stimuli.[4] Therefore, if attentional biases have a causal role on the maintenance of anxiety or drug addictions then lowering the attentional biases should therefore lower feelings of anxiety amongst the anxious and craving and promote abstinence amongst the drug addicted.

Effectiveness Edit

Effectiveness of attentional retraining has varied in both the anxiety and addictions literature. In an earlier study of attentional retraining in alcohol drinking attentional retraining altered attentional biases and altered the amount of alcohol subsequently consumed after training compared to a control group.[5] However, in a later study by the same group of researchers attentional retraining did not appear to alter drinking behavior and the reductions on attentional bias was not seen on other attentional bias tasks such as the emotional Stroop task.[6] In anxiety the results have been a little more promising and clear with several studies showing reductions in anxiety amongst the experimental group compared to control.[7][8][9][10]

More recently, researchers have started to examine how attention bias modification works. It has been found that attention training works through an improvement in the ability to disengage attention from threatening cues.[11][12] Moreover, it has also been evidenced that attention bias modification is related to changes in activation of the prefrontal cortex to emotional stimuli [13]


The attentional bias is one of several different cognitive biases. The attentional bias is the tendency of certain salient cues in a person's environment to preferentially draw and/or hold the person's attention. For example, individuals with anxiety disorders demonstrate an automatic attentional bias towards threatening cues in their environment and drug users and addicts demonstrate an automatic attentional bias towards drug related cues in their environment.[14][15]

File:Visual Probe Task on a PDA.jpg
The rise of research in cognitive bias modification has led to the recent publication of a special issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology focusing on the methods and technologies used for cognitive bias modification in psychopathology.[16] Attentional retraining as cognitive bias modification is predicated on the observed attentional bias evident in psychopathology. The most common task used to retrain attention in psychopathologies is the dot-probe task developed originally by Macleod et al. (1986). In this task two stimuli are briefly presented on screen. One of the stimuli is emotionally salient (a drug cue or threat cue) and the other is neutral. Stimuli (usually words or images) are presented for about 500 milliseconds and then one of the stimuli is replaced by a probe to which the participant must respond. Required responses are usually to indicate what side of the screen the probe is on or to indicate which direction the probe (an arrow in this case) is pointing. The attentional bias is indicated by the difference in reaction time to the probe after it replaces a salient cue versus the reaction time to respond to a cue that replaces the neutral cue. Usually, the anxious participant will be faster in responding to probes replacing salient stimuli than those replacing neutral stimuli. This suggests their attention was drawn preferentially by the previously presented salient stimuli.

Attentional retraining attempts to retrain this automatic attentional process by using the dot-probe task and having the probe replace the neutral stimuli 100% of the time. Thus, the participant learns an implicit if-then rule: if both salient and neutral stimuli are present, then attend preferentially to the neutral stimuli.[17] Therefore, if attentional biases have a causal role on the maintenance of anxiety or drug addictions then lowering the attentional biases should therefore lower feelings of anxiety amongst the anxious and craving and promote abstinence amongst the drug addicted.

Effectiveness Edit

Effectiveness of attentional retraining has varied in both the anxiety and addictions literature. In an earlier study of attentional retraining in alcohol drinking attentional retraining altered attentional biases and altered the amount of alcohol subsequently consumed after training compared to a control group.[18] However, in a later study by the same group of researchers attentional retraining did not appear to alter drinking behavior and the reductions on attentional bias was not seen on other attentional bias tasks such as the emotional Stroop task.[19] In anxiety the results have been a little more promising and clear with several studies showing reductions in anxiety amongst the experimental group compared to control.[20][21][22][23]

More recently, researchers have started to examine how attention bias modification works. It has been found that attention training works through an improvement in the ability to disengage attention from threatening cues.[24][25] Moreover, it has also been evidenced that attention bias modification is related to changes in activation of the prefrontal cortex to emotional stimuli [26]

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