Date of Award

5-2003

Level of Access

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

Advisor

Jeffrey E. Hecker

Second Committee Member

Geoffrey L. Thorpe

Third Committee Member

Sandra T. Sigmon

Abstract

The current investigation is a test of the vigilance-avoidance model of attentional processing in a socially anxious sample (Mogg, Bradley, de Bono, & Painter, 1997). The theory proposes that individuals with social phobia possess a pre-attentive bias for social threat cues in their environment, however, they subsequently fail to process this information due to strategic cognitive avoidance, that is, conscious efforts to disengage attention from threatening information. A combined subliminal/supraliminal emotional Stroop paradigm was employed in order to examine patterns of pre-attentive and attentional processing of threat cues in an analogue sample of undergraduate students with high versus low levels of social anxiety. Attentional patterns were assessed both prior to and after the initiation of an anxiety induction procedure. It was predicted that, when subjected to stress, socially anxious individuals would automatically orient their attention to social threat cues, however, they would not maintain their attentional focus on the cues sufficiently to allow objective evaluation of them. Thus, theoretically, habituation to the anxiety produced by the social threat cues would be prevented and anxiety would be maintained over the long term. Socially anxious individuals demonstrated pre-attentive vigilance for both social and physical threat cues, followed by avoidance of such cues in later, voluntary stages of attention (i.e., the vigilance-avoidance pattern) in the absence of stress. However, when subjected to an anxiety induction procedure, the attentional pattern of the socially anxious individuals was altered. The initial pre-attentive vigilance for threat appeared to continue into later, strategic stages of attention. That is, they did not appear to be capable of overriding their pre-attentive bias for threat and attention remained engaged on the threat cues. Contrastingly, under stress, the non-anxious control group demonstrated a pattern of avoidance of threat cues in pre-attentive and attentional stages. The these findings are discussed in light of the vigilance-avoidance model and another recently-proposed theory of attentional bias (Fox et. al., 2001, 2002).

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