Is There a Mutual Relationship Between Opposite Attentional Biases Underlying Anxiety?

Renzo Onnis, Mark R. Dadds*, Richard A. Bryant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Current models that account for attentional processes in anxiety have proposed that high-trait anxious individuals are characterized by a hypervigilant-avoidant pattern of attentional biases to threat. We adopted a laboratory conditioning procedure to induce concomitant hypervigilance and avoidance to threat, emphasizing a putative relationship between lower-level reactive and upper-level controlled attentional mechanisms as the core account of attentional processes involved in the development and maintenance of anxiety. Eighty high- and low-trait anxious participants underwent Pavlovian conditioning to a human face. Eye tracking was used to monitor attentional changes to the conditioned stimulus (CS+) face and the neutral stimulus (CS-) face, presented at 200, 500, and 800 ms durations. The high-anxious participants developed the expected attentional bias toward the CS+ at 200 ms presentation time and attentional avoidance at 500 and 800 ms durations. Hypervigilance to aversive stimuli at 200 ms and later avoidance to the same stimuli at 500 and 800 ms were associated with higher levels of galvanic skin conductance to the CS+. The low-anxious individuals developed the opposite attentional pattern with an initial tendency to orient attention away from the aversive stimuli in the 200 ms condition and to orient attention toward aversive stimuli in the remaining time. The differential modulation between hypervigilance and avoidance elicited in the two groups by the conditioning procedure suggests that vulnerability to anxiety is characterized by a latent relationship between diverse attentional mechanisms. Within this relationship, hypervigilance and avoidance to threat operate at different stages of information processing suggesting fuzzy boundaries between early reactive and later-strategic processing of threat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)582-594
Number of pages13
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Anxiety
  • Attention
  • Avoidance
  • Hypervigilance


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