Attentional Bias: What Is It?
Attentional bias is the tendency to concentrate on certain aspects of one’s environment or situation while ignoring others. Due to the fact that it requires conscious intellectual engagement, attentional balance might be classified as a form of cognitive bias. Research has demonstrated that our attention can be influenced by a wide range of circumstances. From exterior events and stimuli such as an alleged danger to our well-being to intrinsic states of mind such as hunger, anxiety or sadness.
Attentional bias influences our external perceptions and our decisions on those perceptions. When you are preoccupied with a pre-existing line of thought, attentional biases may explain why you fail to investigate possible alternatives. For instance, it has been demonstrated that people who smoke cigarettes have an attentional bias toward stimuli in their surroundings associated with smoking. This is because of the altered reward sensitivity that smoking causes in the brain.
Why it Happens
The fact that humans have relatively limited cognitive capabilities is one factor that contributes to attentional bias. Because of our short attention spans, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we humans can only focus on a certain number of things at once, regardless of how much information we take in at once.
The question then is, why are we inclined to pay more attention to certain stimuli while ignoring others? According to the opinions of a number of knowledgeable individuals, it is possible that this inclination has an evolutionary origin. Our ancestors had a better chance of surviving if they focused more of their attention on potentially dangerous environmental factors and ignored stimuli that did not constitute a threat to their well-being. This was necessary for them to do to ensure their own survival.
If you have ever been in a frightening situation that requires your total focus and attention, it is easy to realize how things were for our ancestors during those days when you were either the predator or the prey. Such situations result in what is known as “tunnel vision” – becoming highly aware and sharply focused on a specific threat.
Attentional Bias in Action: An Example
An example can help you better grasp how attentional bias may affect your perceptions and actions.
So, you have been looking forward to eating healthy to avoid being obese and other lifestyle diseases. You swear never to buy and eat desserts and other sugary food to achieve this. One week into your plan, the unexpected happens, and your schedule becomes so full that you are forced to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. You give it your all, but you just can’t help but fantasize about the delicious sweets and snacks you will find in the convenience store section of the grocery store. Eventually, you cave in and give in to the temptation. A few boxes of cookies eventually find their way into your shopping cart, which you wind up devouring. Hunger, in this case, influenced your choices to favour simple carbs like sugar, which are instant sources of energy, making it more difficult to stick to your diet plan.
How Attentional Bias Influences Decision Making
When it comes to making a decision, attentional bias can significantly impact the outcome and cause individuals to make poor or erroneous decisions.
Researchers have shown that persons who struggle with eating disorders and drug addiction have a heightened sensitivity to stimuli related to food and drugs. Because of this, it is difficult for such people to rehabilitate when they are surrounded by a world that is full of tempting stimuli. Since people tend to pay attention to particular signals while discounting others, the attentional bias makes the recovery process more difficult.
Your memories can also be affected by your attentional bias. Humans tend to fixate on a particular stimulus when confronted with a situation. As a result, it is possible for them to fail to perceive the wider picture, causing them to miss out on essential details. Because of this prejudice, people’s memories of the event may become distorted, incorrect or insufficient when they try to recall it at a later time.
Attentional bias can also make it more challenging to let go of distracting or unhelpful thoughts, increasing feelings of anxiety and even depression. This is because of our natural inclination to concentrate on and overthink some aspects of our lives. According to the findings of several studies, those who suffer from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are more likely to be biased toward negative stimuli.
How to Avoid Attentional Bias
It can be tough to overcome attentional bias. In many cases, we aren’t even aware of our own biases since they operate at such a profound and instinctive level. However, there are some circumstances where it is possible to plan for bias-inducing stimuli. Avoiding this form of cognitive bias can be done through practising mindfulness, planning around bias pitfalls and employing feedback and practice methods in which a friend or trainer gives feedback that promotes an emphasis on positive stimuli.
Most of the time, attentional biases are unintentional and take place without any deliberate effort on the part of the subject. Even though they can be adaptive and helpful for survival, this form of bias can also negatively impact one’s ability to make decisions and lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Although attentional biases cannot be eliminated entirely, it is vital to be aware of the detrimental effects they can have on one’s decision-making process and to learn how to avoid prejudice by being aware of other sources of information. Doing so will likely assist you in arriving at more appropriate and informed decisions.