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03-01-2021 | Original Article | Uitgave 4/2021

Cognitive Therapy and Research 4/2021

To Approach or to Avoid: The Role of Ambivalent Motivation in Attentional Biases to Threat and Spider Fear

Cognitive Therapy and Research > Uitgave 4/2021
Mengran Xu, Katelyn Rowe, Christine Purdon
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People with anxiety difficulties show different patterns in their deployment of attention to threat compared to people without anxiety difficulties. These attentional biases are assumed to play a critical role in the development and persistence of anxiety. However, little is known about factors that influence attentional biases to threat. An emerging body of evidence suggests that visual attention to threat varies across the time course according to one’s motivation to approach vs. avoid threat.


In order to better understand the relationship between motivation, attentional biases to threat, and anxiety, we had participants high in spider fear complete a sustained-attention task in full view of a live tarantula while their eye movements were tracked.


Participants who were ambivalent about whether to look at the spider or to avoid looking exhibited a unique pattern of visual attention to the spider, and reported higher spider fear and more negative affect than did other participants at the end of the study.


Our findings suggest that anxiety persistence may have more to do with goal prioritization than innate attentional biases. Future studies of attentional biases to threat should take motivation into account and study attention across the time course. Ambivalent motivation to threat should also be targeted in exposure therapy.

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