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Behav Res Ther. 1996 Sep;34(9):695-705.

Evidence for attention to threatening stimuli in depression.

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  • 1Applied Psychology Unit, Medical Research Council, Cambridge, U.K.


A modified version of the attentional deployment task developed by MacLeod, Mathews and Tata (1986) [Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 15-20] was used to examine two issues: first, whether there was any evidence of attentional bias in depressed subjects, rather than in anxious subjects alone; and second, whether attentional effects would occur in the location of stimuli that could not be identified. Subjects were presented with pairs of words, one above the other, and the extent to which attention favored threatening rather than neutral words was assessed from the latency to detect a dot in the same location of one them. These detection latencies showed that depressed, but not anxious subjects, were selectively attentive to socially threatening words. There was also evidence for attentional effects in the anxious subjects favoring physically threatening words. Furthermore, panic disorder patients were preferentially attentive to the location of physically-threatening stimuli that could not be accurately identified. Overall, the results provide further evidence that emotionally disturbed subjects tend to orient attention towards personally-relevant emotional stimuli. However, the previous hypothesis that this attentional bias occurs only in anxiety, and not in depression, was not supported.

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