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The role of competence-related attentional bias and resilience in restoring thwarted feelings of competence


The key goal of the present study was to examine how people deal with feelings of failure stemming from negative feedback. Specifically, we investigated whether individuals, and in particular those high in resilience, would display an attentional bias for competence-related cues after receiving competence-thwarting (i.e., negative) feedback. First, we validated a dot probe task tapping into competence-related attentional bias in a pilot study with 80 participants (Mage = 19.06, SDage = 3.91; 84% female). Subsequently, in the main study, another group of 60 participants (Mage = 21.95, SDage = 3.00; 68% female) were randomly provided with either positive or negative feedback after participating in a puzzle task. Subsequently, participants’ puzzle-task competence and their attentional bias were assessed, while their behavioral persistence during a free-choice period was recorded. First, results showed that participants in the negative, relative to the positive, feedback condition experienced higher levels of puzzle-task related competence frustration and displayed a stronger attentional bias for competence-related words. Next, regression analyses revealed that only individuals high in resilience displayed an attentional bias towards competence-related words in response to negative feedback. Finally, we found that such attentional bias was functional for a recovery in feelings of competence over time among those who received negative feedback. The discussion focuses on the role of attentional bias as a potential need-restoring coping mechanism.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. 1.

    At the end of the lab session in the preliminary study, we checked whether participants of the preliminary study understood and interpreted the presented words in the dot probe task in accordance with the set categories. While all ‘competence-related’ and ‘incompetence-related’ words were correctly classified into their respective categories, 21 neutral words were not correctly interpreted. These words were replaced in preparation of the main experiment (see Appendix).

  2. 2.

    In addition to the operationalized negative and positive feedback conditions, 30 participants (60% female; Mage = 22.01, SDage = 4.45; range 18–37) received no feedback after solving a combination of difficult and easy puzzles. A MANOVA contrasting the negative with the no feedback condition produced similar results as those obtained for the comparison of the positive and negative feedback condition (Wilks’ Lambda = .80, F(5, 53) = 2.66, p = .03). Participants who did not receive feedback reported significantly lower competence frustration [F(1, 57) = 4.47, p = .04], higher intrinsic motivation [F(1, 57) = 4.48, p = .04], a lower competence bias [F(1, 57) = 4.86, p = .03] compared to those in the no feedback condition. Additionally, there were no differences in terms of the duration of persistent behavior [F(1, 57) = .63, p = .43] and feelings of competence frustration after the free-choice period [F(1, 57) = .02, p = .90].

  3. 3.

    One of the reviewers raised the question to what extent the concepts resilience and competence satisfaction are similar measurements. To explore this issue, we performed additional analyses. Specifically, we performed two confirmatory factor analyses with the first analysis modeling two separate factors (i.e., items relating to resilience and competence satisfaction were modeled as two factors) [CFI = .89, AIC = 1678.75, χ2(76) = 121.97, p = .001] and the second analysis modeling a single-factor [CFI = .82, AIC = 1703.48, χ2(77) = 148.70, p = .000]. A Chi square comparison test between both models revealed that the first model, including two factors, had a significant better fit with respect to the data (\(\chi_{diff}^{2} (1)\)  = 26.73, p < .001).

  4. 4.

    In addition to feelings of competence frustration, we also measured feelings of competence satisfaction. Participants in the negative, relative to those in the positive, feedback condition reported less competence satisfaction after the puzzle task (but not after the free-choice period). In addition, the restorative movement over time was also found for competence satisfaction such that participants, who received negative feedback, reported significantly improved competence satisfaction in case they had a strong attentional bias for competence-related words.

  5. 5.

    In the main study, participants’ level of intrinsic motivation with regard to the puzzle task was assessed using the subscale ‘pleasure and interest’ of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (McAuley et al. 1989; 4 items; αmain = .90). Self-reported intrinsic motivation correlated negatively with feelings of competence frustration (r = − .46, p < .01) and participants who received positive feedback reported higher intrinsic motivation (M = 5.28, SD = 1.13) compared to participants who received negative feedback [M = 4.23, SD = 1.37; t(87) = 3.27, p < .01], a finding documented in earlier research (e.g., Vansteenkiste and Deci 2003).


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Joachim Waterschoot and Maarten Vansteenkiste received no funding. For Jolene van der Kaap-Deeder, the preparation of this paper was supported by Grant 12X5818 N of the Research Foundation: Flanders.

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List of stimuli as a function of trial types with number of letters (N) and average valence

  Word (English) N Valence Word (English) N Valence
Incompetence versus neutral trials
 (1) Inefficiënt (inefficient) 11 2.12 Hoogachtend ( sincerely )
Bijenhoning (honeybee)
11 4.15
 (2) Floppen (flop) 7 2.49 Pleiten ( argue )
Brengen (bring)
7 4.04
 (3) Falen (fail) 5 1.64 Tafel (table) 5 4.04
 (4) Onbekwaam (inept) 9 2.10 Gemiddeld ( average )
Afrikanen (Africans)
9 3.74
 (5) Afgang (embarrassment) 6 1.76 Kikker (frog) 6 4.19
 (6) Blunder (blunder) 7 2.31 Gordijn (curtain) 7 4.08
 (7) Gefaald (failed) 7 1.71 Hagedis (lizard) 7 4.01
 (8) Misser (miss) 6 2.13 Paneel (panel) 6 4.11
 (9) Incompetent (incompetent) 11 2.02 Binnenschip (barge) 11 4.22
 (10) Mislukkeling (failure) 12 1.71 Sentimenteel ( sentimental )
Zwaarbewolkt (cloudy)
12 4.13
 (11) Buizen (flunk) 6 2.08 Ladder (ladder) 6 4.02
 (12) Incapabel (incapable) 9 2.14 Scharnier (hinge) 9 3.89
Competence versus neutral trials
 (1) Vertrouwen (confide) 10 5.99 Verrichten ( conduct )
Aanbrengen (affixing)
10 4.31
 (2) Slim (smart) 4 5.97 Knop (button) 4 3.97
 (3) Talent (talent) 6 5.86 Orgaan ( organ )
Bouten (bults)
6 4.35
 (4) Capabel (capable) 7 5.58 Stempel (stamp) 7 4.15
 (5) Expert (expert) 6 5.53 Karton (cardboard) 6 3.86
 (6) Bedreven (skilled) 8 5.61 Vermogen (power) 8 4.16
 (7) Bekwaam (capable) 7 5.55 Scooter (scooter) 7 4.16
 (8) Behendig (agile) 8 5.54 Overgave ( submission )
Klassiek (classic)
8 3.78
 (9) Kennis (knowledge) 6 5.5 Knopen (knots) 6 3.95
 (10) Succes (success) 6 5.96 Sessie ( session )
Figuur (figure)
6 3.96
 (11) Capaciteit (capacity) 10 5.63 Maarschalk (marshal) 10 3.74
 (12) Competent (competent) 9 5.56 Medeweten ( consent )
Kandelaar (candle)
9 4.01
Neutral versus neutral trials
 (1) Vierkant (square) 8 4.15 Verbaasd ( surprised )
Overname (takeover)
8 4.12
 (2) Trechter (funnel) 8 3.89 Onbekend ( unknown )
Stelling (claim)
8 3.50
 (3) Grijnzen ( grin )
Spreiden (spread)
8 3.71
Delicaat (delicate)
Voortuin (front yard)
8 3.90
 (4) Impulsief (impulsive)
Nationaal (national)
9 3.67
Gewichtig ( momentous )
Televisie (television)
9 3.61
 (5) Vragend ( asking )
Browser (browser)
7 4.06
Terrein (area) 7 3.98
 (6) Tellend ( counting )
Anoniem (anonymous)
7 4.06
Staande ( standing )
Fontein (fontain)
7 4.09
 (7) Spoelen (flush) 7 3.93 Snellen ( rush )
Bestaan (exist)
7 3.97
 (8) Serieus ( serious )
Vroeger (past)
7 3.84
Schroef (propeller) 7 3.84
 (9) Schalen (bowls) 7 3.79 Rooster (schedule) 7 3.75
 (10) Ploeger (plow) 7 3.83 Plafond (ceiling) 7 3.94
 (11) Pamflet (pamphlet) 7 3.87 Makreel (mackerel) 7 3.77
 (12) Loodsen (guide) 7 3.58 Knippen ( cut )
Vliegen (fly)
7 3.91
Incompetence versus competence trials
 (1) Inefficiënt (inefficient) 11 2.12 Vertrouwen (confide) 10 5.99
 (2) Floppen (flop) 7 2.49 Capabel (capable) 7 5.58
 (3) Falen (fail) 5 1.64 Slim (smart) 4 5.97
 (4) Onbekwaam (inept) 9 2.10 Competent (competent) 9 5.56
 (5) Afgang (embarrassment) 6 1.76 Expert (expert) 6 5.53
 (6) Blunder (blunder) 7 2.31 Bekwaam (capable) 7 5.55
 (7) Gefaald (failed) 7 1.71 Talent (talent) 6 5.86
 (8) Misser (miss) 6 2.13 Succes (success) 6 5.96
 (9) Incompetent (incompetent) 11 2.02 Bedreven (skilled) 8 5.61
 (10) Mislukkeling (failure) 12 1.71 Capaciteit (capacity) 10 5.63
 (11) Buizen (flunk) 6 2.08 Kennis (knowledge) 6 5.51
 (12) Incapabel (incapable) 9 2.14 Behendig (agile) 8 5.54
  1. Note. Numbers of letters are based on words translated in Dutch. Underlined words and averages scores refer to the replaced words (see preliminary study, word selection). For contrast-related trials, numbers of letters do not match exactly

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Waterschoot, J., van der Kaap-Deeder, J. & Vansteenkiste, M. The role of competence-related attentional bias and resilience in restoring thwarted feelings of competence. Motiv Emot 44, 82–98 (2020).

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  • Resilience
  • Attentional bias
  • Need frustration
  • Negative feedback
  • Self-determination theory