Attentional biases in social anxiety: an investigation using the inattentional blindness paradigm
Social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental disorder with the lifetime prevalence rate of 13.3% in the US population. Typically, it causes significant impairment in a wide range of functioning and follows a chronic, unremitting course if untreated. Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in clinical research aimed at examining underlying mechanisms maintaining social anxiety. One line of research has investigated attentional biases in social anxiety, using various cognitive experiment paradigms, including the emotional Stroop and the modified dotprobe tasks. However, overall findings are equivocal about the nature of attentional biases in social anxiety and several methodological problems limit the interpretability of the data. The present study examined attentional biases associated with social anxiety using a new research paradigm in the field of anxiety disorders: the inattentional blindness paradigm. This paradigm presents a social cue in the absence of the subjects’ expectation while they are engaged in a cognitively demanding task, thereby enabling the more purely attentional aspect of information processing to be examined reducing the influence of potential response biases or effortful strategies. Two independent experiments were conducted using nonclinical student samples consisting of individuals high in social anxiety (HSAs) versus individuals low in social anxiety (LSAs) based on the static and sustained inattentional blindness tasks. Overall, results revealed that HSAs were more likely to detect or identify a socially-threatening cue, relative to LSAs; whereas LSAs were more likely to detect or identify a non-threatening social cue, relative to HSAs. These findings were observed only in the presence of a bogus-speech manipulation. These data suggest the promising utility of the inattentional blindness paradigm in investigating attentional biases in social anxiety and perhaps other psychopathological conditions. Theoretical and clinical implications are discussed.