Category: Adult Anxiety - Social


Testing the Vigilance-Avoidance Hypothesis With Directed Attention

Friday, November 17
10:15 AM - 11:45 AM
Location: Sapphire Ballroom M & N, Level 4, Sapphire Level

Keywords: Adult Anxiety | Attention
Presentation Type: Symposium

It has been proposed that anxiety is characterized by vigilance for threatening stimuli followed by avoidance. Tests of this proposal using stimuli relevant to social anxiety disorder (e.g., negative faces) have yielded inconsistent results. It is plausible that tests have been hampered by the poor reliability of traditional attentional bias measures, but we hypothesized that even participants who were uniformly attempting to avoid would not show consistent earlier vigilance because we expect attentional processes to be dynamic and inconsistent across time within participants. We conducted three studies examining this question by instructing some participants to avoid negative faces, others to attend to negative faces, and some to simply complete the standard task. Participants included unselected undergraduates from the USA in two studies and undergraduates selected for moderate trait anxiety in Israel in a third study (total n = 323 across studies). The inclusion of participants who were directed to deploy their attention led to traditional attentional bias scores that were more reliable than is typical (with some split-half reliability estimates above .75); we also examined trial-level bias scores (TLBS), which displayed similar or higher reliability. Preliminary analyses show that, across all studies, participants showed significant (psp=.02) for participants who were attempting to avoid showing a significant tendency to avoid on shorter presentations times in Study 1 (but not Study 2 or 3). We thus found no evidence for the contention that attempting to avoid produces early vigilance that can be detected using the dot probe task, even with reliable indices of attentional bias. These findings seem consistent with the more complicated picture encountered by clinicians of people with social anxiety disorder who struggle in a dynamic fashion with whether and how much to engage with social stimuli. 

Thomas L. Rodebaugh

Associate Professor
Washington University


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Testing the Vigilance-Avoidance Hypothesis With Directed Attention

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