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Behav Res Ther. 1991;29(2):147-60.

Does anxiety lead to selective processing of threat-related information?

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, England.


Four experiments investigating the detailed nature of the attentional bias in anxiety are reported. Previous research using the Stroop task has shown that, when compared with non-patient controls, anxious patients are relatively slower at colour naming threat-related words than non-threat words. Experiments One and Two investigated whether this apparent attentional bias is a function of anxiety per se and/or is related to patient/non-patient status. Experiment One compared colour-naming times for threat and non-threat words in low, medium and high trait anxiety normal subjects. High anxiety was not associated with slower colour-naming times for threat words. Experiment Two compared generalized anxiety disorder patients with equally anxious non-patients and found that the patients were significantly slower at colour-naming threat words. Read aloud and dwell tasks were also included in these experiments in order to identify the mechanism of Stroop interference. Experiments Three and Four investigated whether anxious patients' attentional bias is specific to threat-related material or also extends to certain positive, emotional material. In Experiment Three words used in previous Stroop studies were rated for emotionality. Threat words were more emotional, as well as more threatening, than control words, indicating that previous studies have confounded threat and emotionality. Experiment Four compared colour-naming times for threat words, equally emotional positive words, and neutral words. Consistent with the emotionality hypothesis, generalized anxiety disorder patients were slower than non-anxious controls at colour naming both threat words and positive words. The theoretical, methodological and clinical implications of these results are discussed.

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