Varying expectancies and the attention bias in phobic and nonphobic individuals

Tatjana Aue, Raphaël Guex, Léa A.S. Chauvigné, Hadas Okon-Singer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Phobic individuals display an attention bias to phobia-related information and biased expectancies regarding the likelihood of being faced with such stimuli. Notably, although attention and expectancy biases are core features in phobia and anxiety disorders, these biases have mostly been investigated separately and their causal impact has not been examined. We hypothesized that these biases might be causally related. Spider phobic and low spider fearful control participants performed a visual search task in which they specified whether the deviant animal in a search array was a spider or a bird. Shorter reaction times (RTs) for spiders than for birds in this task reflect an attention bias toward spiders. Participants' expectancies regarding the likelihood of these animals being the deviant in the search array were manipulated by presenting verbal cues. Phobics were characterized by a pronounced and persistent attention bias toward spiders; controls displayed slower RTs for birds than for spiders only when spider cues had been presented. More important, we found RTs for spider detections to be virtually unaffected by the expectancy cues in both groups, whereas RTs for bird detections showed a clear influence of the cues. Our results speak to the possibility that evolution has formed attentional systems that are specific to the detection of phylogenetically salient stimuli such as threatening animals; these systems may not be as penetrable to variations in (experimentally induced) expectancies as those systems that are used for the detection of nonthreatening stimuli. In sum, our findings highlight the relation between expectancies and attention engagement in general. However, expectancies may play a greater role in attention engagement in safe environments than in threatening environments.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberJUL
StatePublished - 12 Jul 2013


  • Attention bias
  • Biological preparedness
  • Expectancy bias
  • Fear
  • Phobia
  • Spiders

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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