Cognitive Therapy and Research

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 179–191 | Cite as

Cognitive avoidance and attentional bias: Causal relationships

  • Edith H. Lavy
  • Marcel A. van den Hout


Experimental evidence indicates that anxious subjects show an attentional bias toward threatening information, but it has also been suggested that cognitive avoidance plays a role in anxiety. It was hypothesized that cognitive avoidance is causally involved in the emergence of attentional bias. An experiment was conducted with normal subjects to investigate whether a strong motivation for cognitive avoidance results in an attentional bias toward the (formerly neutral) subject to be avoided. Forty-five subjects were instructed to suppress all thoughts about numbers, and 45 subjects received control instructions. Both groups carried out a modified Stroop test, including both number words and nonnumber control words. Compared with the control group, the thought suppression group showed an attentional bias toward number words, due to selective allocation of attention to number stimuli. Alternative interpretations, like priming and other unintentional effects of the experimental manipulation, are discussed but do not seem to be plausible. A functional relationship between motivation for cognitive avoidance and attentional bias is proposed.

Key Words

attentional bias cognitive avoidance thought suppression 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. American Psychiatric Association (1987).Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed., rev.). Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
  2. Beck, A. T., Laude, R., & Bohnert, M. (1974). Ideational components of anxiety.Archives of General Psychiatry, 31, 319–325. Bentall, R. P., & Thompson, M. (1990) Emotional Stroop performance and the manic defense.British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 29, 235–237.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Cassidy, K. L., McNally, R. J., & Zeitlin, S. B. (1992). Cognitive processing of trauma cues in rape victims with post-traumatic stress disorder.Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 283–295.Google Scholar
  4. Channon, S., & Hayward, A. (1990). The effect of short-term fasting on processing of food cues in normal subjects.International Journal of Eating Disorders, 9, 447–452.Google Scholar
  5. Craske, M. G., Street, L. L., Jayaraman, J., & Barlow, D. H. (1991). Attention versus distraction during in vivo exposure: Snake and spider phobias.Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 5, 199–211.Google Scholar
  6. Davis, P. J., & Schwartz, G. E. (1987). Repression and the inaccessibility of affective memories.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 155–162.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Dawkins, K., & Furnham, A. (1989). The colour naming of emotional words.British Journal of Psychology, 80, 383–389.Google Scholar
  8. Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1986). Emotional processing of fear: Exposure to corrective information.Psychological Bulletin, 99, 20–35.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Foa, E. B., & McNally, R. J. (1986). Sensitivity to feared stimuli in obsessive-compulsives: A dichotic listening analysis.Cognitive Therapy and Research, 10, 477–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Foa, E. B., McNally, R., & Murdock, T. (1989). Anxious mood and memory.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27, 141–147.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Foa, E. B., Steketee, G., & Rothbaum, B. (1989). Behavioral/cognitive conceptualizations of post-traumatic stress disorder.Behavior Therapy, 20, 155–176.Google Scholar
  12. Hibbert, G. A. (1984). Ideational components of anxiety: Their origin and content.British Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 618–624.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Hope, D. A., Rapee, R. M., Heimberg, R. G., & Dombeck, M. J. (1990). Representations of the self in social phobia: Vulnerability to social threat.Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 177–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Landau, R. J. (1980). The role of semantic schemata in phobic word interpretation.Cognitive Therapy and Research, 4, 427–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lavy, E. H., & van den Hout, M. A. (1990). Thought suppression induces intrusions.Behavioural Psychotherapy, 18, 251–258.Google Scholar
  16. Lavy, E., & van den Hout, M. (1991).Does cognitive avoidance provoke attentional bias? Unpublished manuscript, Limburg University, Maastricht, the Netherlands.Google Scholar
  17. Lavy, E., & van den Hout, M. (1993). Attentional bias for appetitive cues: Effects of fasting in normal subjects.Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapy, in press.Google Scholar
  18. Lavy, E., van den Hout, M., & Arntz, A. (1993a). Attentional bias and facilitated escape: A pictorial test.Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 15, 279–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lavy, E., van den Hout, M., & Arntz, A. (1993b). Attentional bias and spider phobia: Conceptual and clinical issues.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 17–24.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Litz, B. T., & Keane, T. M. (1989). Information processing in anxiety disorders: Application to the understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder.Clinical Psychology Review, 9, 243–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. MacLeod, C., Mathews, A., & Tata, P. (1986). Attentional bias in emotional disorders.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 15–20.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Mathews, A. (1989). Cognitive aspects of the etiology and phenomenology of anxiety disorders. In P. Emmelkamp, W. Everaerd, F. Kraaimaat, & M. van Son (Eds.),Fresh perspectives on anxiety disorders (pp. 125–133). Berwyn, PA: Swets North America.Google Scholar
  23. Mathews, A., & Klug, F. (1993). Emotionality and interference with color-naming in anxiety.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 57–62.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Mathews, A., & MacLeod, C. (1985). Selective processing of threat cues in anxiety states.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23, 563–569.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Mathews, A., & MacLeod, C. (1987). An information-processing approach to anxiety.Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 1, 105–115.Google Scholar
  26. McNally, R. J., Kaspi, S. P., Riemann, B. C., & Zeitlin, S. B. (1990). Selective processing of threat cues in post-traumatic stress disorder.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 99, 398–402.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. McNally, R. J., Riemann, B. C., & Kim, E. (1990). Selective processing of threat cues in panic disorder.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 28, 407–412.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Mogg, K., & Marden, B. (1990). Processing of emotional information in anxious subjects.British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 29, 227–229.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Mogg, K., Mathews, A., Eysenck, M., & May, J. (1991). Biased cognitive operations in anxiety: Artefact, processing priorities or attentional search?Behaviour Research and Therapy, 29, 459–457.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Mogg, K., Mathews, A. & Weinman, J. (1987). Memory bias in clinical anxiety.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 96, 94–98.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Mogg, K., Mathews, A., & Weinman, J. (1989). Selective processing of threat cues in anxiety states: A replication.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27, 317–323.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Rachman, S., & De Silva, P. (1978). Abnormal and normal obsessions.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 16, 233–248.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Uit den Boogaart, P. C. (1975).Wordfrequenties—In Geschrevan en Gesproken Nederlands. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Oosthoek, Scheltema and Holkema.Google Scholar
  34. Watts, F. N. (1990). Aversion to personal body hair: A case in the integration of behavioural and interpretative methods.British Journal of Medical Psychology, 63, 335–340.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Watts, F. N., McKenna, F. P., Sharrock, R., & Tezise, L. (1986). Colour naming of phobia-related words.British Journal of Psychology, 77, 97–108.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Watts, F. N., Sharrock, R., & Trezise, L. (1986). Detail and elaboration in phobic stimuli.British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 25, 253–259.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Wegner, & Erber, R. (1992). the hyperaccessibility of suppressed thoughts.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 903–912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Williams, J. M. G., Watts, F. N., MacLeod, C., & Mathews, A. (1988).Cognitive psychology and emotional disorders. Chichester, UK: Wiley and Sons.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edith H. Lavy
    • 1
  • Marcel A. van den Hout
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Mental Health Sciences/Experimental PsychopathologyLimburg UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations