Study: Attentional bias not a sign of a psychological disorder

According to a study published earlier this year in the PLOS ONE, attentional biases of emotion—or a person’s tendency to focus on certain emotions over others—do not accurately predict the likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The research, led by principal investigators Maeve O’Leary-Barrett and Robert O. Pihl of McGill University, was conducted in response to recent evidence suggesting that people with psychiatric disorders tend to show pronounced biases in the way they process emotions. There is already a known link between personality and psychopathy, but the research team was interested in whether or not attentional bias could also be a reliable predictor of psychopathy.

The study examined 2257 participants at age 14 and again at age 16.  In the initial assessment researchers administered the NEO Personality Inventory, which measures neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Participants were also given the emotional dot probe task—one of the most common tasks for measuring attention bias—to see which emotional stimuli would distract which subjects. Participants with anxious personalities, for instance, would be most distracted by threatening faces or words.

Upon returning at age 16, participants were given the Development and Well-Being Assessment (DAWBA), a tool used to diagnose psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents.  They were also given the emotional dot probe task a second time for comparison.

Researchers discovered that there was a reliable link between the personality measures and a later diagnosis. For instance, a 14-year old who scored high in hopelessness and neuroticism was likely to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder at age 16.

However, there was not a significant link between personality and attentional bias, or between attentional bias and a psychological disorder. This suggests that attentional bias is likely not an accurate predictor or indicator of a psychological disorder.

The research team concluded that “early symptoms of mental disorders are more likely detected using personality measures than attentional biases to emotional faces.”

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