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You Should Be Paying Attention(al) to this Bias 

Putting all of your attentional resources towards studying!

You rush into a library late on a rainy night, toting all your calculus notes with you. In just a few days, you have the biggest exam of the semester, and you know you have to do well to keep up your grades. As you walk in, you are greeted by an extensive number of stimuli, the warmth of the library, the smell of coffee floating through the air, the sound of pages rustling. You head to your favorite spot in the cubicle section of the library, pull your books out of your backpack, and get ready to start studying for your exam. Before you do though, you take a quick look at the people around you. You notice a person in a bright red rain jacket about 20 feet away from you, sitting on a chair reading a book. You also notice a group of students huddled around a table, and a man in a suit typing away on his laptop. But that’s enough of observing people, you are here to work on calculus! You really immerse yourself in the math, reading your textbook, reviewing notes, and solving problems in your notebook. You check the clock on the wall every once in a while and after a solid hour and a half of intense studying, you decide to take a break. You feel proud of what you’ve accomplished and decide to go to the next door cafe to get yourself a treat. As you stand up you scan the environment around you – to your surprise, you don’t see the group of students, the businessman, or the woman in the bright red raincoat. Instead there are new people around you that you don’t recognize – How did this happen? You weren’t asleep and you didn’t leave your spot in the library, yet you didn’t notice people leave or enter the space. This is an example of attentional bias, which causes people to pay attention to certain things while ignoring other stimuli. In this example, your attention was directed to the task at hand – so much so that attention was not paid to your surroundings.

Now, imagine you are in a classroom where a professor is going through a lecture with slides. You start to zone out, thinking about something completely unrelated to the class, while staring at the floor. You snap back to reality, look at the slides, and don’t recognize what your professor is talking about. Despite being in the closed classroom without distractions, you can’t remember what your professor was talking about, or what the past couple slides covered. This once again is attentional bias allowing you to ignore certain stimuli in your environment.

What is the Attentional Bias?

It is broadly defined as the tendency to pay attention to certain stimuli while ignoring others at the same time. However, research has shown that this not only impacts what we see in the world, but also the thoughts and decisions we have based on stimuli that we take into account. An important concept to take into consideration is the comparison of awareness and attention – as there is a common misconception that they are the same thing. However, it is entirely possible for a person to be attending to different things in the room, and not be aware. This is mainly because our cognitive resources are limited – it would be impossible to be aware of every stimulus that you are encountering at any given point. However, though our cognitive processes can only take in a certain number of stimuli, we have the ability to redirect our attention flexibly and quickly when needed. In terms of redirecting attention, there are two manners in which attention is directed. The first is Exogenous Orienting, or an involuntary attentional capture. Often times stimuli that capture our attention are novel, sudden, or have distinct sensory characteristics that cause a reflexive reaction. In the library example, regardless of how much attention you are utilizing to study, if the fire alarm was triggered, you’d automatically assign your attention to that stimuli because of the sound and flashing lights. The second way is Endogenous Orienting, or a voluntary attentional shift. This is the conscientious decision that a person makes when they want to switch their attention from certain items to different ones. In the classroom example, if you decide to look at notes from an old class rather than pay attention to the current lecture, you are voluntarily shifting your attention.

In order to understand the attentional bias in more depth, we must look more into how attention works as a whole. There are multiple theories about how attention functions, but two popular explanations indicate that attention works as a filter or as a capacity model (McLeod, 2018). In the filter model, directing your attention to a certain thing impairs the ability to notice other things, because irrelevant information is filtered out. The capacity model on the other hand, states that we are only able to pay attention to a certain number of stimuli, because there are not enough resources to possibly detect everything that occurs. Regardless of which model explains attention more accurately, there are clearly limitations with attention – which are contributors to the Attentional Bias. One such limitation is known as Attentional Blindness, which is a general term for any failure to notice visual stimuli due to attentional factors. Another limitation is known as Change Blindness, which is a phenomenon where a visual stimulus is introduced, and the observer fails to notice it.

Cognitive Research in Attentional Bias

Example of the Stroop Task!

The Stroop Effect (1935) is used in several capacities to measure attentional biases, and it has been used in several studies which investigate this bias. The general premise of this effect revolves around a list of colors that are written in a different color. For example, the word “green” would by written in the red color. Participants are asked to say what color the word is written, and it is often hard for participants to not automatically read the word instead (Cherry, 2019). For example, a study utilizing the Stroop Task that demonstrates an attentional bias could give emotionally charged words and neutral words in different colors. It would be expected that participants would be able to identify the colors of the neutral words much quicker than the emotionally charged words because more attention would be needed to process and understand the emotionally charged words (Cherry, 2019).

Example of the Dot-Probe Task!

Research in attentional biases are often associated with emotional states such as worry, depression, and anxiety. For example, research (Bradley et al., 1999) specialized in patients with General Anxiety Disorder, analyzing specific attentional biases. In this research, the patients were shown faces displaying happy, neutral, or threatening faces, and the study looked at how quickly they could identify the emotion. The results found that there were particular attentional biases in identifying threatening faces – which was shown through a much slower reaction time compared to the happy and neutral faces. The conclusion made was that patients with General Anxiety Disorder experience attentional biases in natural based stimuli, in this case, pictures of faces.

Another study (Hur et al., 2019), looked at attentional biases in two different states of mind, worry and rumination. Rumination is defined as the focused attention on one’s distress and the consequences that could come from it – rather than solutions. In this study, a dot-probe task was utilized, which is a task where pictures or words are shown preceded by a central fixations (usually a plus sign) and then followed by the image of a dot. For the rumination condition several images were shown, about half that were related to failure or loss, and half that were neutral images. For the worry condition, half of the images related to worry, and the other half were neutral. There was strong evidence for attentional biases in both states of minds, causing the subjects to perceive negative tendencies that weren’t in the prompts – specifically that they identified the neutral images as negative images.

One study (Knight et al., 2018), looked at attentional biases that social/light drinkers and heavy drinkers had towards alcohol. The participants were shown certain items, and were asked to do change detection tasks (tasks where participants had to identify changes between two pictures). The results were surprising, indicating that heavy drinkers were able to disregard their attentional bias much more effectively than the light drinkers – meaning that they were able to complete the change detection tasks much quicker and more accurately than the light drinkers. This study showed that some cognitive resources were utilized to accommodate the amount of drinking that was a regular habit for the subjects, so that more cognitive processes were able to be used on the attentional tasks presented to the subjects. The conclusion that was drawn from this study indicated that attention as a whole can be redistributed based on habits and tendencies. Because the heavy drinkers developed higher tolerance to alcohol, they were able to direct their attention more on the task, completing faster and more accurately than the social drinkers. It’s quite impressive that attention can learn to disregard strong stimuli, if they are consistently perceived by a person –but definitely would not recommend heavily drinking no matter how effective it makes you at change detection tasks! Each of our own cognitive systems become used to our habits and tendencies, and thus utilize cognitive resources differently.

Analyzing the three of these studies, I found a very strong connection between state of mind and the attentional bias, specifically that thoughts and emotions can impact what you observe in the world. The first two studies discussed how the feelings of anxiety, worry, and rumination lead to observing those thoughts in scenarios where they aren’t present. A general summary of this would be that you tend to observe the world more negatively if you are in a bad mood, and that you would view the world positively if you are in a good mood. The third study showed that your lifestyle also plays a large part on what you perceive in the world – as cognitive resources are redistributed based on what a normal life mindset is for each individual. These studies show that lifestyle and emotions play a vital role in what you observe and pay attention to in an environment – without us even realizing it!

The attentional bias is an interesting phenomenon that can explain how our brain utilize our cognitive resources to attend to different stimuli present in the environment. Unfortunately, it seems extremely difficult to change the effects that this bias has on us, but it can be utilized to find out information about people in different emotional states as seen in various studies. Hope you were paying attention to this blog post, but not too much attention. After all, we know how valuable our attention truly is!



Bradley, B. P., Mogg, K., White, J., Groom, C., & De Bono, J. (1999). Attentional bias for

emotional faces in generalized anxiety disorder. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 

38(3), 267-278. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466599162845


Cherry, K. (2019, August 12). How the attentional Bias Influences the Decisions We Make.

Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-attentional-bias-2795027.


Hur, J., Gaul, K., & Berenbaum, H. (2019). Different patterns of attention bias in worry and

rumination. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 43(4), 713–725. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-018-09993-4


Knight, H. C., Smith, D. T., Knight, D. C., & Ellison, A. (2018). Light social drinkers are more

distracted by irrelevant information from an induced attentional bias than heavy social drinkers. Psychopharmacology, 235(10), 2967–2978. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-018-4987-4


McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct 24). Selective attention. Simply Psychology.





  1. December 3rd, 2019 at 21:06 | #1

    Good read! I like the fact that you emphasized how attending to stimuli does not equate to awareness, and how Change Blindness and Attentional Blindness are examples of this. I also found the connection between attentional bias and emotional states as well as drinking habits to be very neat and unique connection to make. I’m not sure what to think about the drinking study myself!

  2. jmmccu22
    December 4th, 2019 at 18:15 | #2

    First and foremost I want to say I love your writing style! Your hook is not only engaging (not to mention extremely relatable), but also factual as the two examples you provide do a great job of illustrating how attentional blindness can both help and hinder one’s performance on specific tasks. Although you didn’t refer to his model specifically, your work directly relates to Kahneman’s model of a limited attentional capacity. For example, in Knight et al.’s study, although every participant has limited attentional capacities, heavier drinkers have more available attention to assign to the change detection task due to drinking being a habitual experience. Because drinking for heavier drinkers becomes more of an automatic process over time, it requires less cognitive resources (including attention) to be done effectively. As you stated above, it is this “advantage” that allows them to perform better than their lighter drinking counterparts.

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