When fear takes hold, everything is a threat. And that’s really scary. The dark side of ‘attentional bias’

“People are wired to focus on threats, so positive information is tuned out. When fear grabs our focus, our brains can’t seem to see anything else. That leads to a picture of the world that’s all gray clouds, no silver linings. There’s a link between attentional bias, depression and anxiety.”

My ongoing exploration of cognitive biases takes a bit of a dark turn today, but a timely one. I wrote this piece on “attentional bias” for PeopleScience.com right before the holidays, before the discovery of Covid-19.    I’m sad to say it seems infinitely more relevant now.  “Attentional bias” sounds harmless enough, but at a time when literally everyone, and it seems like almost everything, is a threat, it can seem impossible to maintain focus.  So not only is it hard to see happiness, it’s hard to be productive at all. Perhaps this helps explain the awful state of our political discourse right now.

I’ll share my truth: As a writer, you are always fighting to stay focused on the work at hand.  Distractions are the friend of writer’s block and the enemy of every deadline-worker.  To be honest, the longer Covid-19 drags on, the more I personally find it difficult to focus on individual stories — there’s so many stories flying around, so much to worry about, so many facts to check.  Feeling productive is an important part of mental health, so I find this a real challenge.  But I’ll keep trying. I hope you do, too.

Here’s a sample of the piece from PeopleScience; you can read it on their site. 


We are all programmed to notice *different* things. I don’t mean we are programmed differently.  I mean we don’t notice when things stay the same. We notice change, novelty. If you are into cars, you remember what your friends drive. If you like clothes, you likely notice co-workers’ fashion choices. If you consider yourself a coffee snob, you can probably know the kind of beans that local coffee shops stock. These are rather harmless examples of a phenomenon social scientists call attentional bias. Your eyes, and your mind, are tuned to see certain things, and consequently, are blind to others. Don’t ask a coffee snob to recall what flavors of hot tea the corner store sells, even if she “sees” the list daily.

Attentional bias – which could be thought of as tunnel vision – has obvious evolutionary benefits. Being able to focus in on changes in the environment, while shutting out other potential distractions, surely helped our ancestors find food and avoid becoming food. Anyone who’s ever had to run away from a fire, or an assailant, or even raced to finish a big project as a deadline draws near, knows the good side to tunnel vision.

Psychologists have long known that attentional bias also has quite a dark side. It seems to be biased towards the negative. People are wired to focus on threats, so positive information is tuned out. When fear grabs our focus, our brains can’t seem to see anything else. That leads to a picture of the world that’s all gray clouds, no silver linings. There’s a link between attentional bias, depression and anxiety.

“We are biologically designed to process threats before positive stimuli,” writes Madrid-based researcher Merche Ovejero. “This leads to consequences in the person’s life, altering psychosocial well-being, especially in the case of anxiety disorders.”

The classic experiment demonstrating the mentally gripping power of fear is called the Stroop Color and Word Test. Social scientists put words before subjects and ask them to quickly identify the color. Some of the words are neutral; others are designed to induce fear. When scary words are shown, test-takers are slower to identify the colors. For example, spider-phobic test takers were dramatically hampered in their ability to select colors when words associated with spiders – such as “web” – were displayed.

Worse yet, people already suffering from anxiety or addiction seem to be caught up in a self-sustaining whirlpool of bad thoughts, tunnel vision on threats, cognitive failures and more stress. Stroop tests tend to show subjects with anxiety disorders are more easily distracted and more prone to attentional bias.

“Researchers have found that people who have eating disorders tend to pay more attention to stimuli related to food, while individuals experiencing drug addictions tend to be hyper-sensitive to drug-related cues. For people struggling to recover from an eating disorder or addiction, this tendency to pay attention to certain signals while discounting others can make recovery that much more difficult.”

At work, attentional bias creates an optical illusion that can lead to poor judgment, limiting our pool of available data for decision-making in the same way that availability bias, confirmation bias or frequency illusion can. We notice more Tesla cars on the road after a friend points them out – when we are primed to notice them. You probably think your neighborhood is less safe after you join an email list devoted to reporting crime incidents. Someone with attentional bias-fueled anxiety might take that a step further and have trouble reading any other emails after signing up for the crime list. A manager wired the same way might conclude that all workers steal after catching a single incident of an employee pocketing a $20 at the end of the night – ignoring hundreds of other days when dozens of employees acted honestly. It’s easy to see how dark that workplace could quickly become.

The power of attentional bias might be harnessed in marketing, too, where a common technique is to scare consumers and then provide them with a solution to this fear. Think, “Criminals are stealing delivery packages from homes in your area – but our camera can stop them.”  In fact, our tendency to overweight the importance of low-probability events like shark attacks or plane crashes is a well-worn tool for companies marketing solutions.

That does work, but only to a point. If consumers feel only fear, or the ads induce too much anxiety, buyers might emotionally respond with tunnel vision and tune out the happy ending you are offering. This can be true with employees, too. Some people respond well to threats or fear. Others shut down. The more anxious someone is, the quicker fear will make them lose focus.

One antidote to the power of attentional bias is to intentionally focus on the truthful employees, the many uneventful days at the beach and the safe landings. Clinically, this is called ABM – attentional bias modification training. It’s easier said than done. Scientists are experimenting with various techniques of ABM, such as gamification, to make it “stick” for those suffering from anxiety disorders.

Others suggest gratitude journals, in which users write down a few positive events every day, as a form of retraining our minds away from focus on the negative. While Oprah Winfrey’s very public devotion to her gratitude journal can make this sound pop-psych-y, there actually is some science behind the habit of saying thank you. Practice right now: Share this story with your friends on social media as a thank you!

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About Bob Sullivan 1463 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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