Trait anxiety and the alignment of attentional bias with controllability of danger

  • Lies NotebaertEmail author
  • Jessie Veronica Georgiades
  • Matthew Herbert
  • Ben Grafton
  • Sam Parsons
  • Elaine Fox
  • Colin MacLeod
Original Article


Attentional bias to threat cues is most adaptive when the dangers they signal can readily be controlled by timely action. This study examined whether heightened trait anxiety is associated with impaired alignment between attentional bias to threat and variation in the controllability of danger, and whether this is moderated by executive functioning. Participants completed a task in which threat cues signalled money loss and an aversive noise burst (the danger). In ‘high control’ blocks, attending to the threat cue offered a high chance of avoiding this danger. In ‘low control’ blocks, attending to the threat cue offered little control over the danger. The task yielded measures of attentional monitoring for threat, and attentional orienting to threat. Results indicated all participants showed greater attentional orienting to threat cues in high control relative to low control blocks (indicative of proper alignment), however, high trait-anxious participants showed no difference in attentional monitoring for threat between block types, whereas low trait-anxious participants did. This effect was moderated by N-Back scores. These results suggest heightened trait anxiety may be associated with impaired alignment of attentional monitoring for threat cues, and that such alignment deficit may be attenuated by high executive functioning.



Preparation of this paper was supported by Australian Research Council Grants FL170100167 and DP170104533. EF and SP were supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC Grant agreement no: [324176]. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for the Advancement of Research on Emotion, School of Psychological ScienceUniversity of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia
  2. 2.Oxford Centre for Emotion and Affective Neuroscience, Department of Experimental PsychologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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