Attentional bias is the tendency of our perception to be affected by our recurring thoughts. For example, people who frequently think about the clothes they wear pay more attention to the clothes of others. Attentional bias is an ad hoc scientific term.
Several types of cognitive bias occur due to an attentional bias. One example occurs when a person does not examine all possible outcomes when making a judgment about a correlation or association.[according to whom?] They may focus on one or two possibilities, while ignoring the rest.
The most commonly studied type of decision for attentional bias, is one in which there are two conditions (A and B), which can be present (P) or not present (N). This leaves four possible combination outcomes: both are present (AP/BP), both are not present (AN/BN), only A is present (AP/BN), only B is present (AN/BP). This can be better shown in table form:
|A Present||A Not Present|
|B Not Present||AP/BN||AN/BN|
In everyday life, people are often subject to this type of attentional bias when asking themselves, "Does God answer prayers?" Many would say "Yes" and justify it with "many times I've asked God for something, and He's given it to me." These people would be accepting and overemphasizing the data from the present/present (top-left) cell, because another person would consider data from the present/absent cell. "Has God ever given me something that I didn't ask for?" Or "Have I asked God for something and didn't receive it?" This experiment too supports Smedslund's general conclusion that subjects tend to ignore part of the table.
Attentional biases can also influence what information people are likely to focus upon. For instance, patients with anxiety disorders and chronic pain show increased attention to information representing their concerns (i.e., angry and painful facial expressions respectively) in studies using the dot-probe paradigm. Furthermore, attention biases toward positive stimuli have been associated with an abundance of positive outcomes such as increased social engagement, increased prosocial behavior, decreased externalizing disorders, and decreased emotionally withdrawn behavior. It is important to note that two different forms of attentional bias may be measured. A within-subjects bias occurs when an individual displays greater bias towards one type of information (e.g., painful faces) when compared to different types of information (e.g., neutral faces). A between-subjects bias, alternatively, occurs when one group of participants displays greater bias than another group of participants (e.g., chronic pain patients shown greater bias towards painful expressions than healthy control participants). These two types of bias therefore arise due to different mechanisms, and both are not always present in the same sample of participants. Another commonly used paradigm to measure attentional biases is the Stroop paradigm.
Attentional bias often seen in eye tracking movements is thought to be an underlying issue of addiction. Smokers linger on smoking cues compared with neutral cues. Researchers found higher activation in the insular cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala when presented with smoking cues. The orbitofrontal cortex is known to be coordinated with drug-seeking behavior and the insular cortex and amygdala are involved in the autonomic and emotional state of an individual.
Neural activity is also known to decrease upon the beginning of smoking, focusing the smokers’ attention on their upcoming cigarette. Therefore, when smoking cues are nearby it is harder for a smoker to concentrate on other tasks. This is seen in the activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known for focusing attention on relevant stimuli.
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Recent research has found a strong correlation between smoking cues and attentional bias. These studies not only illustrate the importance of attentional bias in addiction and cravings but also how we look at addiction from a scientific standpoint. The behavioral aspects of cravings are extensively covered; however, the perceptual and neurological aspects of attentional bias and the roles they play are supported by recent research as significant.
Research using the Stroop paradigm tested the effect of smoking related words such as cigarette, puff, and smoke, with negative effect words such as sick, pain and guilty and positive effect words such as safe, glad and hopeful and neutral words such as tool, shovel and hammer. Results showed a strong correlation in a slower reaction time between smoking related and negative-effect word lists. A slower reaction time to negative and smoking word lists indicates lingering attention or attentional bias by the participant. This is significant because the task calls for the participant to focus on the color of the word rather than meaning, possibly implicating an underlying negative feeling towards their smoking behavior. Smokers have attentional bias to a subliminal images and therefore are more likely to be influenced by environmental cues such as seeing other people smoking, ads for cigarettes or triggers such as coffee or alcohol. This idea further illustrates that influence of smoking cues implicate that dependence on nicotine is reinforced by attentional bias. Smokers may have underlying negative feelings toward smoking, when asked to think of the negative consequences of smoking, they showed less craving than those who were encouraged to smoke. This illustrates the influence of attentional bias on environmental smoking cues and could contribute to a smokers’ inability to quit.
Similar Stroop paradigm studies have explained that attentional bias is not dependent on smoking itself, but rather the person who is the smoker displays attentional bias. A recent study required one group of smokers to refrain from smoking the night before and another less than an hour before. Abstinence from smoking created slower reaction time, but a smoke break between study sessions showed increased reaction time. Researchers say this shows that nicotine dependence intensifies attention, but does not directly depend on smoking itself due to lack of evidence. The longer reaction time suggests smokers craving a cigarette linger on smoking related words. Smokers and smokers attempting to quit displayed the same slower reaction time for smoking related words, supporting research that implies attentional bias is a behavioral mechanism versus a dependence mechanism, due to the fact that the smokers were slowed down by smoking related words and negative words, but not positive and neutral words.
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