The effects of anxiety on visual attention for emotive stimuli in primary school children

Thesis


Kelly, Lauren 2014. The effects of anxiety on visual attention for emotive stimuli in primary school children. Thesis
AuthorsKelly, Lauren
Qualification namePhD
Abstract

Anxiety can be advantageous in terms of survival and well-being, yet atypically high levels may be maladaptive and result in the clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Several risk factors have been implicated in the manifestation of clinical anxiety, including cognitive biases. In recent years, a plethora of research has emerged demonstrating that anxious adults exhibit biases of attention for threatening stimuli, especially that which is biologically relevant (e.g., facial expressions). Specific components of attentional bias have also been identified, namely facilitated engagement, impaired disengagement, and avoidance. However, the majority of studies have focused on the spatial domain of attention. Furthermore, the area is under-researched in children, despite research demonstrating that symptoms relating to clinical and non-clinical anxiety follow a stable course from childhood through to adolescence and adulthood. Consequently, the aim of this thesis was to investigate how anxiety affects children’s visual attention for emotive, particularly angry, faces. In order to provide a more comprehensive understanding, the current research involved examining the role of temporal and spatial attention utilising rapid serial visual presentation with the attentional blink, and the visual probe paradigm, respectively. The main hypothesis was that high state and/or trait anxiety would be associated with an attentional bias for angry, relative to positive or neutral faces in both the temporal and spatial domains. In relation to the temporal domain, key findings demonstrated that high levels of trait anxiety were associated with facilitated engagement towards both angry and neutral faces. It was further found that all children rapidly disengaged attention away from angry faces. Findings related to the processing of angry faces accorded with the main hypothesis stated in this thesis, as well as research and theory in the area. The finding that anxious children preferentially processed neutral faces in an attentional blink investigation was unexpected. This was argued to potentially reflect this stimulus type being interpreted as threatening. Key findings regarding the spatial domain were that high trait anxious children displayed an early covert bias of attention away from happy faces and a later, overt bias of attention away from angry faces. The finding that high trait anxiety was linked to an attentional bias away from happy faces in a visual probe task was also unexpected. This was argued to potentially reflect smiling faces being interpreted as signifying social dominance, thus resulting in the viewer experiencing feelings of subordination and becoming avoidant and/or submissive. To conclude, this thesis has enhanced current knowledge of attentional bias in both the temporal and spatial domains for emotive stimuli in anxious children. It has demonstrated that higher levels of trait anxiety moderate children’s allocation of attentional resources to different stimulus types, whether these are threatening, positive, or neutral. This has important implications for evaluating past research in adults and children, and for further developing theoretical models of attentional bias and anxiety. It also offers important clinical implications, since attending towards or away from specific stimuli may affect the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Recently, a treatment that aims to modify attentional bias in anxious individuals has begun to be developed. In light of the present findings, it may be necessary to review this treatment so that anxious children are re-trained in the specific biases of attention demonstrated here.

Anxiety can be advantageous in terms of survival and well-being, yet atypically high levels may be maladaptive and result in the clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Several risk factors have been implicated in the manifestation of clinical anxiety, including cognitive biases. In recent years, a plethora of research has emerged demonstrating that anxious adults exhibit biases of attention for threatening stimuli, especially that which is biologically relevant (e.g., facial expressions). Specific components of attentional bias have also been identified, namely facilitated engagement, impaired disengagement, and avoidance. However, the majority of studies have focused on the spatial domain of attention. Furthermore, the area is under-researched in children, despite research demonstrating that symptoms relating to clinical and non-clinical anxiety follow a stable course from childhood through to adolescence and adulthood. Consequently, the aim of this thesis was to investigate how anxiety affects children’s visual attention for emotive, particularly angry, faces. In order to provide a more comprehensive understanding, the current research involved examining the role of temporal and spatial attention utilising rapid serial visual presentation with the attentional blink, and the visual probe paradigm, respectively. The main hypothesis was that high state and/or trait anxiety would be associated with an attentional bias for angry, relative to positive or neutral faces in both the temporal and spatial domains.
In relation to the temporal domain, key findings demonstrated that high levels of trait anxiety were associated with facilitated engagement towards both angry and neutral faces. It was further found that all children rapidly disengaged attention away from angry faces. Findings related to the processing of angry faces accorded with the main hypothesis stated in this thesis, as well as research and theory in the area. The finding that anxious children preferentially processed neutral faces in an attentional blink investigation was unexpected. This was argued to potentially reflect this stimulus type being interpreted as threatening. Key findings regarding the spatial domain were that high trait anxious children displayed an early covert bias of attention away from happy faces and a later, overt bias of attention away from angry faces. The finding that high trait anxiety was linked to an attentional bias away from happy faces in a visual probe task was also unexpected. This was argued to potentially reflect smiling faces being interpreted as signifying social dominance, thus resulting in the viewer experiencing feelings of subordination and becoming avoidant and/or submissive. To conclude, this thesis has enhanced current knowledge of attentional bias in both the temporal and spatial domains for emotive stimuli in anxious children. It has demonstrated that higher levels of trait anxiety moderate children’s allocation of attentional resources to different stimulus types, whether these are threatening, positive, or neutral. This has important implications for evaluating past research in adults and children, and for further developing theoretical models of attentional bias and anxiety. It also offers important clinical implications, since attending towards or away from specific stimuli may affect the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Recently, a treatment that aims to modify attentional bias in anxious individuals has begun to be developed. In light of the present findings, it may be necessary to review this treatment so that anxious children are re-trained in the specific biases of attention demonstrated here.

KeywordsAnxiety; Attention; Attentional bias; Attentional biases; Attentional blink; Avoidance; Children; Covert attention; Disengagement; Dot probe; Emotion; Emotion superiority; Faces; Facial expressions; Eye movements; Eye tracking; Facilitated engagement; Overt attention; Rapid serial visual presentation; Spatial attention; State anxiety; Threat; Threat superiority; Trait anxiety; Visual attention; Visual probe; Ambiguity
Year2014
PublisherUniversity of Derby
Web address (URL)http://hdl.handle.net/10545/332742
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Publication process dates
Deposited13 Oct 2014, 07:36
Publication dates24 Feb 2014
ContributorsMaratos, Frances A. (Advisor) and Lipka, Sigrid (Advisor)
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Related outputs

The effects of anxiety on temporal attention for emotive and neutral faces in children
Kelly, Lauren, Maratos, Frances A. and Lipka, Sigrid 2014. The effects of anxiety on temporal attention for emotive and neutral faces in children. Stress and Anxiety Research Society (STAR).
Attentional bias towards threatening and neutral facial expressions in high trait anxious children.
Kelly, Lauren, Maratos, Frances A., Lipka, Sigrid and Croker, Steve 2016. Attentional bias towards threatening and neutral facial expressions in high trait anxious children. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology. https://doi.org/10.5127/jep.052915