How the Attentional Bias Influences the Decisions We Make

Close up of a person's eye
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The attentional bias involves the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. This impacts not only the things that we perceive in the environment but the decisions that we make based upon our perceptions.

What Exactly Is an Attentional Bias?

When you are trying to make an important decision, do you always consider all of the possibilities? While we might like to think that we take all the alternatives into consideration, the reality is that we often overlook some options and possible outcomes. In some cases, our attention becomes focused on just a few of the options while we ignore the rest. This tendency represents a type of cognitive bias known as an attentional bias.

Why Attentional Bias Happens

So why do we pay more attention to certain stimuli and ignore others? Some experts believe that this tendency might have an evolutionary basis. In order to ensure survival, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they paid greater attention to risky things in the environment and ignored things that did not pose a threat.

If you have ever been in a frightening situation and experienced what is often referred to as "tunnel vision" in which you became hyper-aware and acutely focused on a specific threat, you can probably see how this tendency can be helpful.

Researchers have found that emotional states can influence attentional bias. Anxious individuals tend to exhibit attentional bias early during an information process, while depressed individuals typically show attentional bias when stimuli are presented for a long period of time.

Research

One method that has been used to study attentional biases is known as the Stroop test. In this type of test, participants are asked to name the color of a printed word. In experiments, participants are shown words that are either emotionally negative or emotionally neutral.

The Stroop test measures how long it takes a participant to name the color of a word on a card. Some words are emotionally negative (“death,” “kill) and some are neutral (“table,” “chair”). If it takes a person longer to name the color of a negative word, it’s assumed the person is affected by the negative content and the delay is attributed to emotional bias. Essentially, the participants pay more attention to emotionally negative words, so it takes them longer to name the color of these words than those words that require less attention.

Impact of Attentional Bias

As you might imagine, this type of bias can have a dramatic impact on the decision-making process and can lead people to make bad or inaccurate choices.

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 hypersensitive 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.

The attentional bias can also have an impact on memories. Since people can become overly focused on a single stimulus, they might neglect to notice other aspects of a situation. When recollecting the event later on, memories may be distorted, inaccurate, or incomplete due to this bias.

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  2. Lichtenstein-vidne L, Okon-singer H, Cohen N, et al. Attentional bias in clinical depression and anxiety: The impact of emotional and non-emotional distracting information. Biol Psychol. 2017;122:4-12. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2016.07.012

  3. Ben-haim M, Williams P, Howard Z, Mama Y, Eidels A, Algom D. The Emotional Stroop Task: Assessing Cognitive Performance under Exposure to Emotional Content. J Vis Exp. 2016;(112). doi:10.3791%2F53720

Additional Reading
  • Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2010). Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook. New York: Psychology Press.