Untangling attention bias modification from emotion: A double-blind randomized experiment with individuals with social anxiety disorder

Alexandre Heeren, Charlotte Coussement, Richard J McNally
Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 2016, 50: 61-7

BACKGROUND: Uncertainty abounds regarding the putative mechanisms of attention bias modification (ABM). Although early studies showed that ABM reduced anxiety proneness more than control procedures lacking a contingency between cues and probes, recent work suggests that the latter performed just as well as the former did. In this experiment, we investigated a non-emotional mechanism that may play a role in ABM.

METHODS: We randomly assigned 62 individuals with a DSM-IV diagnosis of social anxiety disorder to a single-session of a non-emotional contingency training, non-emotional no-contingency training, or control condition controlling for potential practice effects. Working memory capacity and anxiety reactivity to a speech challenge were assessed before and after training.

RESULTS: Consistent with the hypothesis of a practice effect, the three groups likewise reported indistinguishably significant improvement in self-report and behavioral measures of speech anxiety as well as in working memory. Repeating the speech task twice may have had anxiolytic benefits.

LIMITATIONS: The temporal separation between baseline and post-training assessment as well as the scope of the training sessions could be extended.

CONCLUSIONS: The current findings are at odds with the hypothesis that the presence of visuospatial contingency between non-emotional cues and probes produces anxiolytic benefits. They also show the importance of including a credible additional condition controlling for practice effects.

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