Biases in Visual Selective Attention. Trait Anxious Individuals Avert Their Gaze From Unpleasant Stimuli

University dissertation from Department of Psychology, Box 213, SE-221 00 Lund

Abstract: Cognitive models of anxiety postulate that anxious individuals are inclined to pay more attention to negative than to positive emotional visual stimuli. The main aim of the present dissertation was to test this prediction, employing a measure of the direction of gaze. In studies I, II and III the participants were shown pairs of angry and happy faces on a screen. In Study IV the stimuli were pleasant and unpleasant pictures. None of the studies could confirm the hypothesis of a positive relation between anxiety and the tendency to orient one’s attention towards unpleasant stimuli. In studies I and III, anxious individuals were instead found to avert their gaze from angry faces. A meta-analysis of Studies I, II, III and IV, with a total of 405 participants, suggested the same conclusion, even if Studies II and IV failed to show such an effect. A review of the empirical evidence on anxiety and visual selective attention raised the possibility that other experiments have confounded stimulus emotionality and stimulus valence, and that the results from these experiments are consistent with the notion that anxiety is connected with a tendency to pay more attention to emotional stimuli (positive and negative), rather than to a tendency to pay more attention to negative stimuli. The present studies considered this potential confound and found that anxious individuals avert their gaze from negative stimuli, more than from positive stimuli. Study III also showed that an individual can avert his or her gaze from the position of angry faces without having any conscious knowledge of doing so.

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