Anxiety and Attention Bias Towards Threat: a Developmental and Multi-method Approach

Open Access
Morales Pamplona, Santiago
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 27, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Kristin Buss, Dissertation Advisor
  • Kristin Buss, Committee Chair
  • Koraly Pérez-Edgar, Committee Member
  • Reginald Adams, Committee Member
  • Sonia A. Cavigelli , Outside Member
  • Attention bias
  • Temperament
  • Anxiety
  • Development
Anxiety disorders affect approximately one third of children and adults in the United States, causing a significant burden to the individual and society. Attention bias towards threat is the tendency to systematically attend to threatening cues in the environment and it may play a crucial role in the emergence and maintenance of anxiety. A growing number of studies suggest that individuals with high trait or clinical anxiety show a heightened attention bias to threat, making it an important marker of anxiety. Moreover, experimental interventions have found that manipulating the levels of attention bias consequently reduced levels of anxiety and sensitivity to stress, suggesting that such interventions could be used for preventive or therapeutic purposes. However, recent studies have reported mixed findings. This inconsistency complicates the interpretation of attention bias to threat as a marker of anxiety, as well as its potential as an effective intervention. Importantly, this variability in the findings is not considered to represent “noise,” but meaningful individual differences in how anxiety and attention bias manifest. The goal of the current dissertation was to better characterize these individual differences. This goal was accomplished by performing three separate studies that together addressed two outstanding issues of the current attention bias literature. The first was to study attention bias and its relation to anxiety from a developmental approach as most empirical investigations and theoretical models of attention bias lack a developmental perspective. The other major outstanding issue in the current attention bias literature is that the mechanisms behind attention bias are not well understood. The present dissertation investigated the mechanisms of attention bias by using several methods. Specifically, these studies employed multiple attention bias tasks, measured eye movement, assesed neural correlates, and evaluated the impact of a theoretically relevant congnitive process (i.e., effortful control). The results from the current dissertation suggest that: 1) it is important to consider cross-task attention bias convergence as this may index important individual characteristics such as fearful temperament and/or anxiety; 2) Attention bias can be captured during infancy and that meaningful individual differences in attention bias exist from early in development such as relations with known risk factors for anxiety; 3) other cognitive functions like effortful control likely play an important role in the relations between attention bias, fearful temperament, and anxiety. More specifically, that in early childhood, effortful control likely serves as a protective factor rather than a risk factor. Implications of these findings, limitations, as well as future directions are discussed in this dissertation.