Home > Attention > Why Have I Seen so Many Dogs Today… and Other Effects of the Attentional Bias

Why Have I Seen so Many Dogs Today… and Other Effects of the Attentional Bias

Have you ever experienced that feeling where you’re in a bad mood and everything seems to be going wrong that day? Maybe all of your friends seem mad at you, or maybe you do something embarrassing like trip, and you feel like everybody is making fun of you.  These are basic examples of the phenomenon that cognitive psychologists call the attentional bias.  This describes the tendency for you to focus on certain pictures, objects, facial expressions, or other stimuli in your environment based on what is dominating your thoughts.  This means that someone who is very interested in dogs and reads a lot of information about them, or looks at pictures of them online all the time, will tend to focus more on dogs in their environment.

Cute dogs

Attention is thought to be a selective process, and the amount of it that you direct on a task is based on how difficult it is (requiring more attention) and what is important, or has meaning to you.  The attentional bias uses this selective nature of attention by directing your focus towards things around you that are related to whatever is on your mind. In terms of evolution, it seems logical for your brain to develop this cognitive bias (like a short cut) to alert you to dangerous predators in the environment, or maybe even by focusing your attention on food in your environment if you are dying of starvation to help you survive.  In the modern world we face much less immediate dangers, or if we do they look very different from the predators that our ancestors faced (a car crash versus a lion).  However, we are still  affected by the attentional bias in many different ways.

The bias can affects you by directing your focus to a threat, such as the pain you  experience everyday.  One study by Wang et al. (2016) looked at the attentional bias in situations where we experience pain.  By tracking people’s eye movements, they found that you are more likely to focus on pictures depicting painful everyday situations versus normal situations if you feel pain, like a hot stimuli, before you look at them.  So, even the small pain that we experience can affect what we focus on in our environment.

A hand getting hit by a hammer

The bias can also negatively impact people with habits, like smoking.  A study by Luijten et al. (2011) using fMRI (a neuro-imaging technique that looks at increased blood flow to show increased activation of certain parts of the brain) showed increased activation of brain areas related to cravings and attention in people who smoke versus non-smokers when they are shown smoking related pictures.  This can make it difficult to quit, because your attention is automatically drawn to things in the environment reminding you of cigarettes, making you crave smoking.

Don’t smoke

While the bias can affect anyone, it has been shown to specifically affect people with anxiety disorders.  A study by Fox (2017) researched the attentional bias in people with anxiety using a modified version of the Stroop task (a common method used to study attention) where the participants were shown threatening and non-threatening words in different colors, and asked to say the color, not the word.  This method is used to study attention because it forces people to use their attentional control to carry out the controlled process of saying the color of the word and stop themselves from doing the automatic process of reading the word, because it is a highly practiced skill.  Research has shown that people with anxiety tend to focus on threatening information, and the study showed that it takes longer for the anxious individuals to respond to threatening words than non-threatening words (showing attentional bias), while there is no effect on non-anxious individuals.  However, the study also showed that the bias may not be selective to threats, because anxious individuals also showed an attentional bias towards distracting words, demonstrating that the bias may not only affect anxious individuals based on the meaning of the words, but rather because they lack the attentional control required to say the color versus the word.

The Stroop Task

While the attentional bias can be helpful by directing our attention to certain things or situations in the environment, it can also have negative consequences.  The bias can make us overly cautious of danger, or make it more difficult to break a bad habit, or contribute to the obsessive nature of anxiety. It can cause us to focus only on limited information when making a decision, or make us only consider certain outcomes to a situation instead of having an more open view.  It shows how large of an impact the way that we think can have on how we perceive the world.  If you are thinking negatively, then you are more likely to focus on negative things in your environment.  In order to live a happier or more positive life it can be helpful to think about happier and more positive things, so that is what you focus on in the world around you.

Think more positively


Fox, Elaine. “Attentional Bias In Anxiety: Selective Or Not?”. Behaviour Research and Therapy 31.5 (1993): 487-493. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Luijten, Maartje et al. “Neurobiological Substrate Of Smoking-Related Attentional Bias”. NeuroImage 54.3 (2011): 2374-2381. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Sun, Z.-K., J.-Y. Wang, and F. Luo. “Experimental Pain Induces Attentional Bias That Is Modified By Enhanced Motivation: An Eye Tracking Study”. European Journal of Pain 20.8 (2016): 1266-1277. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

  1. April 21st, 2017 at 14:44 | #1

    I really enjoyed this post! Some of what was discussed directly relates to my post on the frequency illusion. Both biases are based around misattributions of attention. According to Kahneman’s capacity framework model, attention is a limited resource. It makes evolutionary sense then that one would want to direct attention to stimuli that help them survive. The study done by Fox mentioned the Stroop attentional control paradigm we discussed in class. I wonder if individuals with Alzheimer’s would be similar to the anxious individuals? Because those with Alzheimer’s have deficits in attentional control they cannot inhibit the automatic process of reading. Similarly, the study found that anxious individuals might lack that same attentional control. Following this logic, it would seem that those with Alzheimer’s would also exhibit more attentional bias.
    This post also made me think about how attentional bias would factor into distracted driving. Attentional bias is the tendency to focus on certain stimuli based on what is taking up most of your attention. In the paper by Strayer and Johnston, those participants who were distracted while driving saw less in their visual field. I would think that attentional bias would play a role in why distracted drivers have a higher accident risk. If what is dominating your attentional resources and thoughts are the conversations on the phone then one’s driving would be impaired.

  2. xniu
    May 9th, 2017 at 03:24 | #2

    Very interesting post! Your post is closely related to the materials that we have discussed in class. Though my post on the halo effect is not directly related to your post, attention also plays an important role in my post. Personally, I really like your topic “attentional bias” because it could be associated with a lot of fields of study such as pattern recognition, automatic processes, and memory. I think your first source by Sun, Wang, and Luo as well as your second source by Luijten actually divided the participants into “experts” group and “non-experts” group. In class, we have talked about how bird experts, for example, found recognizing different birds easier than those who were not bird experts because of the frequent exposure that leads to a better recognition. Thus, for smokers, pictures related to smoking may appear to have more distinctive patterns for the smokers than the non-smokers. Also, it also reminded me of the automatic processes because smokers may have developed an automatic pathway to process information related to smoking. Moreover, just as the previous comment by Alexandra mentioned, the study by Fox also reminded me of potential Alzheimer’s disease of those anxious individuals because clearly they had a hard time filtering out the distracting words, which could be a sign of the break-down of the controlled processes. Overall, I think your post has really inclusive information about attention and I hope to see a more extensive discussion on other aspects of cognitive psychology in the future.

  3. May 14th, 2017 at 10:27 | #3

    Thank you for this great post. I really liked how you address multiple ways in which attentional biases can affect people. What stood out to me the most was how attentional biases can influence smokers and make it difficult for them to quit because of how their attention is automatically drawn to related cues in the environment. This made me think about how context might also play a large role in reminding and causing smokers to have a craving. Both bottom up and top down processes work to together to help interpret a stimulus. The Butcher and the bus phenomenon (Mandelt, 1980) is a good example of how context plays an important role in identify or recollecting something. This makes me wonder if the smoker was in a different environment would their attention not automatically be drawn to things in the environment that remind them of smoking? If they were to switch up their daily routine would they be less likely to have their attention drawn to smoking because they are not recognizing smoking in terms of the same context? This also made me think about how the Gestalt Principles and perception might also play a role. Perception in terms of the computational approaches helps people focus on cues in the environment as a way of perceiving stimuli. Could the Gestalt Principle of similarity also cue smokers to think about smoking? I am interested to know what other processes are also involved in the attentional bias in terms of how it makes it hard for one to break a habit. Thank you again for your post I really enjoyed reading it!

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