Attentional bias to threat: roles of trait anxiety, stressful events, and awareness.
Mogg K., Bradley BP., Hallowell N.
Attentional biases for threat stimuli were assessed in high and low trait anxious subjects (n = 66) using a probe detection task. To examine the effects of trait anxiety and situational stressors, each subject was tested three times: Under no stress, laboratory-induced stress, and examination-induced stress. To evaluate the role of awareness, half the word stimuli were presented very briefly (14 msec) and masked, and the other half were presented for 500 msec without a mask. Results showed that high trait anxious subjects under exam stress showed an attentional bias towards unmasked threat stimuli compared with low trait subjects. This effect was not found under lab-induced stress, suggesting that the attentional bias for unmasked threat in high trait subjects may be a function of a prolonged stressor, rather than a transient increase in state anxiety. The results from the masked exposure condition were not predicted; high trait anxious subjects shifted attention towards the spatial location of threat words despite lack of awareness of their lexical content, but this bias was only apparent in the no-stress condition. The results are discussed in relation to recent cognitive theories of anxiety.