What Is Attentional Bias?

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What Is Attentional Bias?

Attentional bias is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. This represents a type of cognitive bias. Attentional bias affects not only the things that we perceive in the environment but the decisions that we make based upon our perceptions.

The attentional bias can be adaptive in many situations, particularly if you are dealing with threats. It allows you to attend to the things in your environment that present the greatest danger and require some type of response. However, paying too much attention to things that are not really threats can contribute to problems including poor decisions and anxiety.

We might like to think that we take all the alternatives into consideration when we make decisions. But the reality is that we often overlook some options and possible outcomes.

This article discusses what attentional bias is, how it works, and the impact that it can have on behavior. It also covers steps you can take to avoid this bias.

History of Attentional Bias

One of the earliest tests of attentional bias was first introduced during the mid-1930s.  This method 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.

Causes of Attentional Bias

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 aspects of the environment and ignored stimuli 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.

Examples of Attentional Bias

In order to understand how attentional bias might influence your perceptions and behaviors, it can be helpful to consider a few examples.

Political decision-making is one area that can be influenced by biased attention. On Stroop tests, people who tend to be politically liberal pay more attention to words with emotionally positive content, whereas people who are politically conservative are more likely to attend to negative words.

Attentional bias can also have an impact on addictive behavior. When a person who smokes is craving a cigarette, they are more likely to have slower reaction times when they encounter smoking-related words on Stroop tests.  This tendency to attend more to smoking triggers may make quitting more difficult.

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 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, memories may be distorted, inaccurate, or incomplete due to this bias.

Attentional biases may contribute to anxiety and depression. Research suggests that people with anxiety and depression tend to be more biased toward negative stimuli.

How to Avoid Attentional Bias

Because attentional bias is part of how the brain functions, it is hard to avoid altogether. Even identifying the bias can be incredibly difficult, since it often occurs on an automatic, unconscious level. Some strategies that may help reduce attentional bias include:

  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of the self and the present moment. It may help you overcome attentional bias by getting you to focus more on many different aspects of your environment, rather than just those that immediately grab your attention.
  • Receive reinforcement: One study found that praising people with depression for noticing positive stimuli and ignoring negative stimuli could minimize the effects of negative attentional biases. Consider enlisting the help of supportive friends and loved ones who can give you positive feedback.
  • Assess your thinking: Before making a decision, spend some time considering whether you've given adequate thought to all of the factors that play a role. By analyzing your thinking, you may find that you're paying too much attention to certain kinds of information and ignoring others.

A Word From Verywell

Attentional biases are a common phenomenon, and in most cases, they operate automatically and unconsciously. While they can often be adaptive and may even aid in survival, they can also serve to negatively impact decision-making and contribute to problems with depression and anxiety.

While it isn't possible to eliminate these biases, becoming aware of their effects and being mindful of other sources of information may help you make more informed, accurate choices.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.