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

Abstract

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.

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Funding

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.

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Notebaert, L., Georgiades, J.V., Herbert, M. et al. Trait anxiety and the alignment of attentional bias with controllability of danger. Psychological Research 84, 743–756 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1081-9

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