Relationships between attention to emotion and anxiety among a community sample of adolescents

Benjamin C. Mullin, Jacob B.W. Holzman, Laura Pyle, Emmaly L. Perks, Yaswanth Chintaluru, Lauren D. Gulley, Dustin A. Haraden, Benjamin L. Hankin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abstract Background Attentional bias to threat has been implicated as a cognitive mechanism in anxiety disorders for youth. Yet, prior studies documenting this bias have largely relied on a method with questionable reliability (i.e. dot-probe task) and small samples, few of which included adolescents. The current study sought to address such limitations by examining relations between anxiety - both clinically diagnosed and dimensionally rated - and attentional bias to threat. Methods The study included a community sample of adolescents and employed eye-tracking methodology intended to capture possible biases across the full range of both automatic (i.e. vigilance bias) and controlled attentional processes (i.e. avoidance bias, maintenance bias). We examined both dimensional anxiety (across the full sample; n = 215) and categorical anxiety in a subset case-control analysis (n = 100) as predictors of biases. Results Findings indicated that participants with an anxiety disorder oriented more slowly to angry faces than matched controls. Results did not suggest a greater likelihood of initial orienting to angry faces among our participants with anxiety disorders or those with higher dimensional ratings of anxiety. Greater anxiety severity was associated with greater dwell time to neutral faces. Conclusions This is the largest study to date examining eye-tracking metrics of attention to threat among healthy and anxious youth. Findings did not support the notion that anxiety is characterized by heightened vigilance or avoidance/maintenance of attention to threat. All effects detected were extremely small. Links between attention to threat and anxiety among adolescents may be subtle and highly dependent on experimental task dimensions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1548-1559
Number of pages12
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • Adolescent
  • anxiety
  • attention
  • eye-tracking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Applied Psychology


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