Study finds no sex differences in attentional bias to threat

A new study suggests that sex differences in fear are not the result of differences in attention to threat.

The study, which was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, examined one possible reason why previous research had found women tend to be more fearful and take less risks than men.

“The topic is part of a larger research effort with Professor Anne Campbell and was important as we wanted to know what possible mechanisms underlie the sex differences in fear. It is generally acknowledged that women on average have greater fear, which is shown in both self-report and behaviour,” explained study author Steven J. Muncer of Teesside University.

“Professor Campbell and other evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized that this is a result of women having a more critical role in infant survival than men. An important question, however, is what is the mechanism that controls this increase in fear.”

“There are several possibilities and one of these which was investigated here is that women have a higher sensitivity to threat because of an attentional bias to threatening stimuli,” Muncer told PsyPost. “This is what is investigated in the meta-analysis.”

The researchers were particularly interested in studies that used the dot-probe task, a psychological test used to measure attentional bias to threat.

But a meta-analysis of 23 dot-probe studies, which included a total of 1,260 participants, found no evidence that women were more sensitive to threatening stimuli than men.

“Overall, there seems to be no evidence from these studies of a greater attentional bias in women to threatening stimuli,” Muncer explained. “This could be because as some have suggested the dot probe task is a poor measure of attentional bias, or because there is no sex difference.”

“If the latter then that means that there must be another mechanism, for example, the strength of the reaction in the amygdala, hypothalamus etc to fear provoking stimuli. The other message is perhaps that it is worth looking for sex differences in studies that were not designed to examine that question, as they might provide an interesting contrast to studies where the design explicitly looked at sex differences.”

In the dot-probe task, a participant is shown a threatening and a neutral stimuli on a computer screen. Both stimuli then disappear and a dot appears at one of the two locations. The participant is asked to indicate the dot’s spatial location as quickly as possible.

A fast response time to a dot that appears in the place of the threatening stimuli indicates an attentional bias towards threat.

“There is, of course, a caveat about the dot probe task and it would be worth investigating sex differences in attentional bias in situations that are more ecologically valid,” Muncer said. “The question of what causes the difference in fear is still one that should be of interest and remains unanswered.”

“As I said this study was part of a larger research project that Professor Campbell was working on when she died earlier this year,” he added. “A colleague of hers, Dr. Catharine Cross (St Andrews), is pulling together the work that was completed and adding some of her own perspective, and it is hoped that this will be published in the future.”