Social anxiety is associated with biased processing of threatening faces. Earlier research indicated that socially anxious individuals are biased towards processing low spatial frequency (LSF) information when judging facial expressions. However, it remains unclear whether this bias reflects better performance for LSF-information, worse performance for high spatial frequency (HSF) information that needs to be compensated for, or both.
Cognitive theories of depression propose that depressed individuals preferentially attend to negative information and that such cognitive biases constitute important vulnerability and maintenance factors for the disorder. Most studies examined this bias by registration of response latencies. The present study employed a direct and continuous measurement of attentional processing for emotional stimuli by recording eye movements. Currently depressed (CD), remitted depressed (RD) and healthy control (HC) participants viewed slides presenting sad, angry, happy and neutral facial expressions. For each expression, four components of visual attention were analyzed: first fixation, maintained fixation, relative fixation frequency and glance duration. Results showed that healthy controls were characterized by longer gaze duration for happy faces compared to currently depressed individuals but not compared to remitted depressed individuals. Both patient groups (CD, RD) demonstrated longer maintained fixation (dwelling time) on all emotional faces compared to healthy controls. The present findings are in line with the presumption that depression is associated with a loss of elaborative processing of positive stimuli that characterizes healthy controls. Importantly, successful remission of depression (RD group) may result in positive attentional processing as no group differences were found between healthy controls and remitted patients on glance duration for happy faces.
Cognitive bias modification has recently been discussed as a possible intervention for mental disorders. A specific form of this novel treatment approach is approach-avoidance modification. In order to examine the efficacy of approach-avoidance modification for positive stimuli associated with social anxiety, we recruited 43 individuals with social anxiety disorder and randomly assigned them to a training (implicit training to approach smiling faces) or a control (equal approach and avoidance of smiling faces) condition in three sessions over the course of a one-week period. Dependent measures included clinician ratings, self-report measures of social anxiety, and overt behavior during behavioral approach tasks. No group differences in any of the outcome measures were observed after training. In addition, while individuals in the training group showed increased approach tendency in one of the sessions, this effect was inconsistent across the three sessions and did not result in long-term changes in implicit approach tendencies between the groups over the course of the entire study. These results suggest that approach-avoidance modification might result in short-lasting effects on implicit approach tendencies towards feared positive stimuli, but this modification may not result in meaningful behavioral change or symptom reduction in individuals with social anxiety disorder.
Models of addictive behaviors postulate that implicit alcohol-related memory associations and biased interpretation processes contribute to the development and maintenance of alcohol misuse and abuse. The present study examined whether alcohol-dependent patients (AP) show an alcohol-related interpretation bias. Second, the relationship between the interpretation bias and levels of harmful drinking was investigated.
Avoidance of stimuli that are associated with the traumatic event is a key feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thus far, studies on the role of avoidance in the development and maintenance of PTSD focused primarily on strategic or explicit avoidance. However, patients may also show implicit avoidance behavior, which may remain even when explicit avoidance is reduced.
Training people to respond to alcohol images by making avoidance joystick movements can affect subsequent alcohol consumption, and has shown initial efficacy as a treatment adjunct. However, the mechanisms that underlie the training's efficacy are unknown. The present study aimed to determine 1) whether the training's effect is mediated by a change in action tendency or a change in selective attention, and 2) whether the training's effect is moderated by individual differences in working memory capacity (WMC). Three groups of social drinkers (total N?=?74) completed either approach-alcohol training, avoid-alcohol training or a sham-training on the Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT). Participants' WMC was assessed prior to training, while their alcohol-related action tendency and selective attention were assessed before and after the training on the recently developed Selective-Attention/Action Tendency Task (SA/ATT), before finally completing an alcohol taste-test. There was no significant main effect of approach/avoidance training on alcohol consumption during the taste-test. However, there was a significant indirect effect of training on alcohol consumption mediated by a change in action tendency, but no indirect effect mediated by a change in selective attention. There was inconsistent evidence of WMC moderating training efficacy, with moderation found only for the effect of approach-alcohol training on the AAT but not on the SA/ATT. Thus approach/avoidance training affects alcohol consumption specifically by changing the underlying action tendency. Multiple training sessions may be required in order to observe more substantive changes in drinking behaviour.
A growing body of evidence shows that the prolonged execution of approach movements towards stimuli and avoidance movements away from them affects their evaluation. However, there has been no systematic investigation of such training effects. Therefore, the present study compared approach-avoidance training effects on various valenced representations of one neutral (Experiment 1, N = 85), angry (Experiment 2, N = 87), or smiling facial expressions (Experiment 3, N= 89). The face stimuli were shown on a computer screen, and by means of a joystick, participants pulled half of the faces closer (positive approach movement), and pushed the other half away (negative avoidance movement). Only implicit evaluations of neutral-expression were affected by the training procedure. The boundary conditions of such approach-avoidance training effects are discussed.
This study investigated multiple cognitive biases in children simultaneously, to investigate whether spider-fearful children display an interpretation bias, a recall bias, and source monitoring errors, and whether these biases are specific for spider-related materials. Furthermore, the independent ability of these biases to predict spider fear was investigated. A total of 121 children filled out the Spider Anxiety and Disgust Screening for Children (SADS-C), and they performed an interpretation task, a memory task, and a Behavioural Assessment Test (BAT). As expected, a specific interpretation bias was found: Spider-fearful children showed more negative interpretations of ambiguous spider-related scenarios, but not of other scenarios. We also found specific source monitoring errors: Spider-fearful children made more fear-related source monitoring errors for the spider-related scenarios, but not for the other scenarios. Only limited support was found for a recall bias. Finally, interpretation bias, recall bias, and source monitoring errors predicted unique variance components of spider fear.
Computerized cognitive bias modification (CBM) programs have generated promising results regarding the treatment of alcohol dependence and anxiety disorders. However, there is hardly any research yet on the implementation of alcohol-CBM into clinical practice. This article addresses the question of the optimal number of training sessions for a specific form of CBM: approach bias re-training in alcohol-dependent patients.
Research suggests that depressed mood is associated with alcohol-related problems, though its relation with drinking behavior has been inconsistent across studies. Efforts to better understand the link between depressed mood and alcohol use have examined drinking motives as a potentially important moderating variable. The current study sought to examine whether drinking motives moderate the influence of depressed mood on alcohol-related action tendencies. Based on Baker, Morse, and Shermans (1986) positive and negative reinforcement schema model, two competing moderational hypotheses regarding the influence of depressed mood on appetitive responses for alcohol were tested.
Self-monitoring of unwanted behavior is a common component of effective cognitive-behavioral therapy. Self-monitoring has often shown to lead to decreases in undesirable behavior. To investigate the underlying mechanisms of these reactive effects, we investigated whether behavioral changes as a result of self-monitoring were accompanied by changes in explicit and implicit evaluation. For this purpose, monitoring of snack-eating was compared to monitoring of alcohol-drinking, since reactive effects are found absent in alcohol-drinking.
PREVIOUS RESEARCH REVEALED AN AUTOMATIC BEHAVIORAL BIAS IN HIGH SOCIALLY ANXIOUS INDIVIDUALS (HSAS): although their explicit evaluations of smiling faces are positive, they show automatic avoidance of these faces. This is reflected by faster pushing than pulling of smiling faces in an Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT; Heuer et al., 2007). The current study addressed the causal role of this avoidance bias for social anxiety. To this end, we used the AAT to train HSAs, either to approach smiling faces or to avoid them. We examined whether such an AAT training could change HSAs automatic avoidance tendencies, and if yes, whether AAT effects would generalize to a new approach task with new facial stimuli, and to mood and anxiety in a social threat situation (a video-recorded self-presentation). We found that HSAs trained to approach smiling faces did indeed approach female faces faster after the training than HSAs trained to avoid smiling faces. Moreover, approach-faces training reduced emotional vulnerability: it led to more positive mood and lower anxiety after the self-presentation than avoid-faces training. These results suggest that automatic approach-avoidance tendencies have a causal role in social anxiety, and that they can be modified by a simple computerized training. This may open new avenues in the therapy of social phobia.
Scientific evidence is equivocal on whether Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is characterized by a biased negative evaluation of facial expressions, even though it is assumed that such a bias plays a crucial role in the maintenance of the disorder. The way of framing the evaluation question may play an important role in the inconsistencies of earlier results. To investigate this issue, an unselected sample of 95 participants (11 males) with varying degrees of social anxiety and depressive symptoms rated facial crowds with different ratios of neutral-disgust, neutral-sad, neutral-happy, and neutral-surprised expressions in terms of friendliness, approval, difficulty to make contact, and threat. It appeared that the impact of social anxiety on ratings was highly dependent on the type of question that was asked, but not on the type of emotion that was shown: a high degree of social anxiety was related to a more positive evaluation of crowds when friendliness was assessed. When asking about the difficulty to make contact, social anxiety was related to more difficulty. When the threat evoked by a crowd had to be evaluated, higher degrees of social anxiety were tendentiously correlated with higher threat ratings. Degree of depression, on the other hand, was negatively correlated only to approval ratings. In addition, with an increasing degree of depression, the negative impact that any additional emotional face had on approval ratings increased as well. The theoretical and methodological implications of the results are discussed.
Cognitive theories of anxiety postulate that negative processing biases play a causal role in the pathogenesis of a disorder, while a normalisation of bias drives recovery. To test these assumptions it is essential to investigate whether biases seen in anxiety are treatment-sensitive, or whether they instead represent enduring vulnerability factors. Twenty-nine spider fearfuls were tested before and after brief cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), with half of them additionally being tested before a waiting period to control for retest effects. Using three cognitive bias tasks, we measured implicit threat evaluation (Extrinsic Affective Simon Task), avoidance tendency (Approach-Avoidance Task), and working memory for threat. CBT significantly enhanced negative implicit evaluation and avoidance. This indicates that these cognitive biases are no stable risk factors and provides further evidence for their potential key role in the development and remission of anxiety.
This study investigated whether direct and indirect measures predict unique variance components of fearful behaviour in children. One hundred eighty-nine children aged between 9 and 12 performed a pictorial version of the emotional Stroop task (EST), filled out the Spider Anxiety and Disgust Screening for Children (SADS-C), the Spider Phobia Questionnaire for Children (SPQ-C), and took part in a Behavioural Assessment Test (BAT). The EST did not correlate with self-reports. Correlations of the self-reports and the BAT remained significant after partialling out EST performance. Likewise, the EST and the BAT still correlated significantly with each other when controlling for the self-reports. This indicates that both direct and indirect measures are useful for predicting unique variance components of fearful behaviour in children. Moreover, it may explain why some previous studies have not found a relationship between self-reported fear and EST performance.
Prior research has shown that depressive symptoms are associated with an enhanced attention toward negative stimuli and difficulty of disengaging attention from negative stimuli. The current study was an extension of a 2005 study by Koster and colleagues. A different stimulus presentation time and word set were used. The whole range of depressive symptoms was included in this sample instead of creating dichotomized groups. The Exogenous Cueing Task with negative, positive, and neutral cues was administered to 85 female undergraduate university students. Participants completed the Becks Depression Inventory-II-NL questionnaire to measure self-reported depression. Contrary to previous findings, depressive symptoms were related to a facilitated rather than impaired attentional disengagement from negative stimuli. An explanation for the discrepancy with findings from Koster, et al. may be the different stimulus presentation time (1000 msec. instead of 500 or 1500 msec.).
The present study investigated specificity of attentional biases for trauma-related stimuli using an Emotional Stroop Task. Participants were 14 women suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who had experienced a sexual trauma and 24 healthy non-traumatized women. They were asked to name print colors of 4 different word types: threatening sexual violence words and non-threatening sexual words, threatening accident trauma words, and positive words. Compared to control participants, PTSD patients displayed increased interference by threatening trauma-related, but not by accident trauma and positive words. Interference by non-threatening sexual words occurred as well, but only in those patients who suffered from more severe PTSD arousal symptoms. These findings suggest graded generalization of the attentional bias across stimuli of varying emotional valence, but specificity regarding the trauma topic. Results are discussed in light of current cognitive models of PTSD, and clinical implications are suggested.
Implicit cognitive processes are relevant in understanding the development and maintenance of psychopathology and dysfunctional behaviours. The present study investigated the role of implicit processes in pathological skin picking (PSP).
This study tested the effects of a new cognitive-bias modification (CBM) intervention that targeted an approach bias for alcohol in 214 alcoholic inpatients. Patients were assigned to one of two experimental conditions, in which they were explicitly or implicitly trained to make avoidance movements (pushing a joystick) in response to alcohol pictures, or to one of two control conditions, in which they received no training or sham training. Four brief sessions of experimental CBM preceded regular inpatient treatment. In the experimental conditions only, patients approach bias changed into an avoidance bias for alcohol. This effect generalized to untrained pictures in the task used in the CBM and to an Implicit Association Test, in which alcohol and soft-drink words were categorized with approach and avoidance words. Patients in the experimental conditions showed better treatment outcomes a year later. These findings indicate that a short intervention can change alcoholics automatic approach bias for alcohol and may improve treatment outcome.
Experimental mood manipulations and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provide a unique opportunity for examining the neural correlates of mood-congruent memory formation. While prior studies in mood-disorder patients point to the medial temporal lobe in the genesis of mood-congruent memory (MCM) bias, the interaction between mood and emotional memory formation has not been investigated in healthy participants. In particular it remains unclear how regulatory structures in the pre-frontal cortex may be involved in mediating this phenomenon. In this study, event-related fMRI was performed on 20 healthy participants using a full-factorial, within-subjects repeated-measures design to examine how happy and sad moods impact memory for valenced stimuli (positive, negative and neutral words). Main effects of mood, stimulus valence and memory were examined as was activity related to successful memory formation during congruent and in-congruent moods. Behavioral results confirm an MCM bias while imaging results show amygdala and hippocampal engagement in a global mood and successful recall, respectively. MCM formation was characterized by increased activity during mood-congruent encoding of negative words in the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC) and for mood-incongruent processing of negative words in medial- and inferior-frontal gyri (MFG/IFG). These findings indicate that different pre-frontal regions facilitate mood-congruent and incongruent encoding of successfully recalled negative words at the time of learning, with OFC enhancing congruency and the left IFG and MFG helping overcome semantic incongruities between mood and stimulus valence.
Scientific evidence is equivocal on whether Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is characterized by a biased negative evaluation of (grouped) facial expressions, even though it is assumed that such a bias plays a crucial role in the maintenance of the disorder. To shed light on the underlying mechanisms of face evaluation in social anxiety, the eye movements of 22 highly socially anxious (SAs) and 21 non-anxious controls (NACs) were recorded while they rated the degree of friendliness of neutral-angry and smiling-angry face combinations. While the Crowd Rating Task data showed no significant differences between SAs and NACs, the resultant eye-movement patterns revealed that SAs, compared to NACs, looked away faster when the face first fixated was angry. Additionally, in SAs the proportion of fixated angry faces was significantly higher than for other expressions. Independent of social anxiety, these fixated angry faces were the best predictor of subsequent affect ratings for either group. Angry faces influence attentional processes such as eye movements in SAs and by doing so reflect biased evaluations. As these processes do not correlate with explicit ratings of faces, however, it remains unclear at what point implicit attentional behaviors lead to anxiety-prone behaviors and the maintenance of SAD. The relevance of these findings is discussed in the light of the current theories.
Valence-specific memory enhancement is one of the core cognitive functions that causes and maintains Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). While previous neuroimaging studies have elucidated the neural underpinnings of this emotional enhancement effect in depressed patients, this study aimed at detecting processing biases that are maintained throughout remission while patients were euthymic.
In two studies, the Single Target Implicit Association Test (STIAT) was used to investigate automatic associations toward spiders. In both experiments, we measured the strength of associations between pictures of spiders and either threat-related words or pleasant words. Unlike previous studies, we administered a STIAT version in which stimulus contents was task-irrelevant: The target spider pictures were categorized according to the label picture, irrespective of what they showed. In Study 1, spider-fearful individuals versus non-fearful controls were tested, Study 2 compared spider enthusiasts to non-fearful controls. Results revealed that the novel STIAT version was sensitive to group differences in automatic associations toward spiders. In Study 1, it successfully distinguished between spider-fearful individuals and non-fearful controls. Moreover, STIAT scores predicted automatic fear responses best, whereas controlled avoidance behavior was best predicted by the FAS (German translation of the Fear of Spiders Questionnaire). The results of Study 2 demonstrated that the novel STIAT version was also able to differentiate between spider enthusiasts and non-fearful controls.
Fear in children is associated with the tendency to avoid situations related to the fear. In this study, the Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT) was evaluated as a test of automatic behavioral avoidance tendencies in children. A sample of 195 children aged between 9 and 12 years completed an AAT, a Behavioral Assessment Task (BAT), and two spider fear questionnaires. The results indicate that all children showed an automatic avoidance tendency in response to spider pictures, but not pictures of butterflies or neutral pictures. Girls who reported more fear of spiders on the self-reports and behaved more anxiously during the BAT also showed a greater avoidance tendency in the AAT. These relationships were absent in boys.
Previous studies of biased information processing in anxiety addressed biases of attention and memory, but little is known about the processes taking place between them: visual working memory (VWM) and monitoring of threat. We investigated these processes with a change detection paradigm. In Experiment 1, spider fearfuls (SF) and non-anxious controls (NAC) judged two subsequently presented displays as same or different. The displays consisted of several pictures, one of which could depict a spider. In Experiment 2, SF and NAC, both without snake fear, were tested with displays including either a spider or a snake image to determine the material-specificity of biased VWM. Both groups showed increased change detection for threat images. This effect was significantly stronger in SF, for spider images only, indicating a threat-specific VWM bias. Thus, contrary to the assumptions made by most cognitive models of anxiety, an explicit memory bias was found.
The current study investigated detection and interpretation of emotional facial expressions in high socially anxious (HSA) individuals compared to non-anxious controls (NAC). A version of the morphed faces task was implemented to assess emotion onset perception, decoding accuracy and interpretation, either with time pressure (Restricted Viewing Task, RVT) or with unlimited viewing (Free Viewing Task, FVT). Twenty-seven HSA and 30 NAC viewed sequences of neutral faces slowly changing to full-intensity angry, happy, or disgust expressions. Participants were instructed to assign the expression as soon as possible to one of four given emotion categories (angry, contempt, disgust, or happy). While no group differences were found for emotion onset perception or decoding performance, the results suggest an interpretation bias in HSA. Under the RVT condition, HSA demonstrated a threat bias (disgust interpreted as contempt), contrasting the NACs positive bias (disgust interpreted as happy). No group differences were found in the FVT. We suggest that socially anxious individuals tend to misinterpret facial expressions as threatening when they must do so quickly and efficiently, as in real life.
Thirty-four college students suffering from pathological skin picking were randomly assigned to a four-session cognitive-behavioural treatment (n=17) or a waiting-list condition (n=17). Severity of skin picking, psycho-social impact of skin picking, strength of skin-picking-related dysfunctional cognitions, and severity of skin injury were measured at pre-, post-, and two-months follow-up assessment. Participants in the treatment condition showed a significantly larger reduction on all measured variables in comparison to the waiting-list condition. The obtained effect sizes for the outcome measures were large, ranging from .90 to 1.89. Treatment effects were maintained at follow-up. In conclusion, cognitive-behavioural therapy, even in brief form, constitutes an adequate treatment option for pathological skin-picking behaviour.
Cognitive schema theories of anxiety postulate that higher-level cognitive processes such as attention and memory are guided by underlying distorted fear associations. While numerous studies investigated these disorder-specific, biased processes, hardly any research addressed the underlying schemata themselves. In particular, no study has ever addressed implicit fear associations in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). In addition, no study has ever experimentally investigated the clinical observation that in GAD, patients worry processes seem to be triggered by a broad range of materials, even by neutral or positive stimuli.
So far, evidence for unskilled social behavior in high socially anxious individuals (HAs) is equivocal. One reason may be that shortcomings are often not directly observable. An important shortcoming would be a lack of unintentional mimicry because it communicates sympathy and rapport with the interaction partner. Therefore, we tested whether HAs show less unintentional mimicry of others. Twenty-nine HAs and 43 low socially anxious individuals (LAs)--all female--watched a virtual man (avatar) who displayed a fixed set of head movements while giving an opinionated speech. Four raters scored whether the participants mimicked the avatars movements within 4 s. The results indicate that HAs did indeed mimic significantly less than LAs. Lacking such pro-social behavior, HAs may indeed be evaluated as less sympathetic by others, confirming their fears of being disliked.
We investigated if an attentional bias for spiders in spider fearful individuals (SFs) can also be found for moving spiders, rather than static images. In Study 1, 28 SFs and 33 non-anxious controls (NACs) participated in a modified version of the dot probe paradigm: they had to react to a probe that appeared either in the next, previous, or side position of a spiders or a wheels path. 24 SFs and 29 NACs participated in Study 2, in which a fourth, highly predictable, probe position was added. We expected that moving spiders would capture the attention of SFs. In addition, we tested whether SFs try to predict the movement of the spider to make it less threatening. As expected, SFs showed an attentional bias towards moving spiders. However, both groups reacted fastest to unpredictable movements, indicating that SFs and NACs alike anticipate unpredictable spider movements.
Following cognitive models of anxiety, biases occur if threat processing is automatic versus strategic. Therefore, most of these models predict attentional bias, but not explicit memory bias. We suggest dividing memory into the highly automatic working memory (WM) component versus long-term memory when investigating bias in anxiety. WM for threat has rarely been investigated although its main function is stimulus monitoring, particularly important in anxiety. We investigated WM for spiders in spider fearfuls (SFs) versus non-anxious controls (NACs). In Experiment 1 (23 SFs/24 NACs), we replicated an earlier WM study, reducing strategic processing options. This led to stronger group differences and, thus, clearer WM threat biases. There were no group differences in Experiment 2 (18 SFs/19 NACs), using snakes instead of spiders to test whether WM biases are material-specific. This article supports cognitive models of anxiety in that biases are more likely to occur when reducing strategic processing. However, it contradicts the assumption that explicit memory biases are not characteristic of anxiety.
We investigated the facial information that socially anxious and nonanxious individuals utilize to judge emotions. Using a reversed-correlation technique, we presented participants with face images that were masked with random bubble patterns. These patterns determined which parts of the face were visible in specific spatial-frequency bands. This masking allowed us to establish which locations and spatial frequencies were helping participants to successfully discriminate angry faces from neutral ones. Although socially anxious individuals performed as well as nonanxious individuals on the emotion-discrimination task, they did not utilize the same facial information for the task. The fine details (high spatial frequencies) around the eyes were discriminative for both groups, but only socially anxious participants additionally processed rough configural information (low spatial frequencies).
Increasing evidence indicates that eye gaze direction affects the processing of emotional faces in anxious individuals. However, the effects of eye gaze direction on the behavioral responses elicited by emotional faces, such as avoidance behavior, remain largely unexplored. We administered an Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT) in high (HSA) and low socially anxious (LSA) individuals. All participants responded to photographs of angry, happy and neutral faces (presented with direct and averted gaze), by either pushing a joystick away from them (avoidance) or pulling it towards them (approach). Compared to LSA, HSA were faster in avoiding than approaching angry faces. Most crucially, this avoidance tendency was only present when the perceived anger was directed towards the subject (direct gaze) and not when the gaze of the face-stimulus was averted. In contrast, HSA individuals tended to avoid happy faces irrespectively of gaze direction. Neutral faces elicited no approach-avoidance tendencies. Thus avoidance of angry faces in social anxiety as measured by AA-tasks reflects avoidance of subject-directed anger and not of negative stimuli in general. In addition, although both anger and joy are considered to reflect approach-related emotions, gaze direction did not affect HSAs avoidance of happy faces, suggesting differential mechanisms affecting responses to happy and angry faces in social anxiety.
In five experiments, a categorization task was used to test whether threatening emotional valence would automatically affect reactions, even when valence is task-irrelevant. Financial threat words (e.g., debts) required the same response as either anxiety words or pleasant words. In the first three experiments, emotional valence was task-irrelevant because all words were categorized according to surface features. No advantage was found for the compatible threat-anxiety combination compared to the incompatible threat-pleasant combination. This occurred irrespectively of whether emotional valence was disguised or made obvious as a stimulus dimension, and whether one or two response dimensions were used. A compatibility effect was observed only when emotional valence was task-relevant (Experiment 4), or when valence was irrelevant, but the words were categorized according to their meaning (Experiment 5). We conclude that stimulus meaning has to be processed in order for emotional valence to affect responses.
We examined the effects of training to approach or avoid novel animals on fear-related responses in children. Ninety-five primary school children (9-13 years old) were instructed to repeatedly push away or pull closer pictures of novel animals. We tested whether this manipulation would lead to changes in self-reported attitudes, implicit attitudes, fear beliefs, and avoidance behaviors towards these animals. The training produced more positive self-reported attitudes towards the pulled animal and more negative attitudes towards the pushed animal. After the training, girls reported more fear and avoidance of the pushed animal than of the pulled animal, while such training effects were absent in boys. No significant training effects were observed on implicit attitudes. Interestingly, the level of anxiety disorder symptoms prior to training was related to some of the training effects: Stronger prior fear was related to stronger changes in self-reported attitudes, and in boys, also to fear beliefs. The finding that a simple approach-avoidance training influences childrens fear-related responses lends support to general theories of fear acquisition in children as well as to models that try to explain the intergenerational transmission of anxiety.
Since the introduction of the associative network theory, mood-congruent biases in emotional information processing have been established in individuals in a sad and happy mood. Research has concentrated on memory and attentional biases. According to the network theory, mood-congruent behavioral tendencies would also be predicted. Alternatively, a general avoidance pattern would also be in line with the theory. Since cognitive biases have been assumed to operate strongly in case of social stimuli, mood-induced biases in approach and avoidance behavior towards emotional facial expressions were studied. 306 females were subjected to a highly emotional fragment of a sad or a happy movie, to induce either a sad mood or a happy mood. An Approach-Avoidance Task was implemented, in which single pictures of faces (with angry, sad, happy, or neutral expression) and non-social control pictures were presented. In contrast to our expectations, mood states did not produce differential behavioral biases. Mood-congruent and mood-incongruent behavioral tendencies were, however, present in a subgroup of participants with highest depressive symptomatology scores. This suggests that behavioral approach-avoidance biases are not sensitive to mood state, but more related to depressive characteristics.
Alcoholism is a progressive neurocognitive developmental disorder. Recent evidence shows that computerized training interventions (Cognitive Bias Modification, CBM) can reverse some of these maladaptively changed neurocognitive processes. A first clinical study of a CBM, called alcohol-avoidance training, found that trained alcoholic patients showed less relapse at one-year follow-up than control patients. The present study tested the replication of this result, and questions about mediation and moderation.
Cognitive schema theories postulate that anxiety disorders are associated with excessive fear associations in memory. For generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it has been shown that patients not only exhibit negative implicit evaluations of clearly negative worry words (e.g., cancer), but also a generalization of this effect to neutral words (e.g., diagnosis). This study assessed the sensitivity of this bias, which has been interpreted as an indicator of a pathologically broadened fear structure, to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
The inability to regulate alcohol consumption has been attributed to an imbalance between stimulus-driven behavioral biases, or action tendencies, and the ability to exert goal-directed control, or working memory capacity (WMC). Previous research assessing the interaction between these variables has not considered the effect of whether individuals current goals or task demands require goal-directed control. Our aim was to examine the potential interaction of appetitive action tendencies and the ability to exert control over these action tendencies as a function of whether task demands require applying control for successful task completion. Two groups of social drinkers (n = 40 per group) who differed in their ability to regulate their alcohol consumption completed a novel variant of the Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT), which separately assessed approach and avoid trials. The approach and avoidance responses differentially require goal-directed control, depending on whether the task-relevant response is incongruent with the stimulus-driven action tendency. Results indicated that (a) group differences in AAT indices were only observed on trials that required an avoidance movement, which are trials where the task-relevant response would be incongruent with an approach action tendency, and (b) the extent of the group differences for these avoidance trials was moderated by individual differences in WMC, such that problem drinkers with lower WMC showed greater behavioral bias toward alcohol than those with higher WMC. These findings suggest that difficulties in regulating alcohol consumption arise from a complex interaction of action-tendencies, WMC, and current goals or task demands.
Previous research has suggested that abnormalities within the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC) may underlie major depressive disorder (MDD). The contribution of microstructural alterations within these regions in adult MDD is still equivocal. Therefore, seventeen middle-aged medication-free remitted MDD patients and 21 matched never-depressed control subjects underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). Despite comparable amygdala volumes, remitted MDD patients revealed decreased mean diffusivity (MD) and increased fractional anisotropy (FA) within the left amygdala, which may be interpreted as greater cell density and increased number of fibers, respectively. This last notion was supported by probabilistic tractography results, which revealed increased connectivity from the left amygdala to the hippocampus, the cerebellum and the brain stem. Further, altered microstructure as indicated by increased MD possibly reflecting decreased cell density within the medial PFC (mPFC) was found. Taken together, the current DTI study shows that abnormal microstructure and connectivity of the amygdala and mPFC might be key factors in the pathophysiology of MDD that may account for functional changes.
According to cognitive theories of depression, individuals susceptible to depression attend selectively to negative information. The purpose of the study was to examine if such an affective processing bias is present in never-depressed individuals with a family history of major depressive disorder (MDD). Formerly depressed female patients having at least one first-degree relative with a history of MDD (n=23), their never-depressed female siblings (n=21) and never-depressed female controls (n=21) performed a conventional and an emotional Stroop task using negative, positive and neutral words. A significant effect was found of group on negative processing bias; post hoc comparisons indicated that never-depressed siblings showed a larger negative processing bias than never-depressed controls. No significant differences were observed in positive bias or conventional interference between the three groups. Our findings suggest that never-depressed females with a family history of depression, like depressed patients, have more difficulties to inhibit negative material and to direct their attention towards task-specific material. This adds to the existing evidence that affective processing bias is a trait characteristic that contributes to the onset of depression and that could be a useful endophenotype for MDD.
Voluntary attempts to suppress certain thoughts can paradoxically increase their intrusive return. Particular impairments in thought suppression are thought to be key mechanisms in the pathogenesis of mental disorders. To assess the role of this processing bias in the maintenance of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), we investigated whether it is susceptible to cognitive-behavioural treatment (CBT).
We tested whether socially anxious individuals perform better in processing facial information with low spatial frequencies (LSFs). For this, we presented socially anxious and nonanxious participants with hybrid face stimuli that contained independent facial expressions in high (HSF) and LSF bands. In two tasks, participants either rated the images according to "angriness" or had to learn how hybrid facial expressions predicted the location of an upcoming target. We found mostly additive effects of LSF and HSF information in the rating task for both groups. In contrast, socially anxious participants showed better prediction performance for LSF expressions in the implicit learning task. We conclude that socially anxious participants are more sensitive to facial information within LSFs, but this higher sensitivity may become mostly evident in indirect tasks.
Alcohol misuse is characterized by patterns of selective information processing. The present study investigated whether heavy- compared with light-drinking students, show evidence of an alcohol-related interpretation bias to ambiguous, alcohol-related cues. Toward this aim, participants were asked to create continuations for ambiguous, open-ended scenarios that provided either an alcohol-related or neutral context. Results showed that heavy-drinking students generated more alcohol continuations for ambiguous alcohol-related scenarios than light-drinking students. This result was independent of the coding method used, with an interpretation bias found when continuations were coded by either participants themselves or by two independent raters.
Several information-processing models highlight the independent roles of controlled and automatic processes in explaining fearful behavior. Therefore, we investigated whether direct measures of controlled processes and indirect measures of automatic processes predict unique variance components of childrens spider fear-related behavior.
Cognitive theories suggest that social anxiety disorder (SAD) is characterized by biased processing of negative facial expressions. Recently, however, it has been proposed that the fear of positive evaluation may play an additional, important role. In order to investigate which specific expressions evoke biased processing, 15 patients diagnosed with SAD and 15 non-anxious controls (NACs) completed an affective priming procedure: they rated neutral symbols which were preceded by sub-optimally presented primes of angry, neutral, and smiling faces. Patients with SAD rated the symbols significantly more negatively than NACs when they were primed with a neutral face. In addition, SAD patients tended to rate all symbols significantly more negatively suggesting that all faces (negative, positive, and neutral) are threatening to SAD patients.
Approach-like actions are initiated faster with stimuli of positive valence. Conversely, avoidance-like actions are initiated faster with threatening stimuli of negative valence. We went beyond reaction time measures and investigated whether threatening stimuli also affect the way in which an action is carried out. Participants moved their hand either away from the picture of a spider (avoidance) or they moved their hand toward the picture of a spider (approach). We compared spider-fearful participants to non-anxious participants. When reaching away from the threatening spider picture, spider-fearful participants moved more directly to the target than controls. When reaching toward the threatening spider, spider-fearful participants moved less directly to the target than controls. Some conditions that showed clear differences in movement trajectories between spider-fearful and control participants were devoid of differences in reaction time. The deviation away from threatening stimuli provides evidence for the claim that affective states like fear leak into movement programming and produce deviations away from threatening stimuli in movement execution. Avoidance of threatening stimuli is rapidly integrated into ongoing motor behaviour in order to increase the distance between the participants body and the threatening stimulus.
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