Managing the threat through the modification of thought

Individuals differ systematically in terms of their habitual attentional responses to threat cues. Some individuals display a pervasive tendency to attentionally avoid all threat cues and hence can find themselves underprepared when the time comes for decision making and action. Conversely, other individuals display a general attentional vigilance for all threat cues.

This attentional style results in high levels of dispositional anxiety, but is not conducive to adaptive planning and preparation in risky environments. Such individuals fail to discriminate relevant from irrelevant threat cues, as determine what is required to appropriately direct decision-making and action designed to mitigate real danger.

Furthermore, the excessive anxiety resulting from this style of attention selectivity (commonly manifest as frequent and intense but unfocussed worry) directly impairs decision-making capability, especially when faced with novel or unforeseen circumstances. Given that it is possible to specify the optimal pattern of attentional response to threat, it would be of significant practical value if techniques could be developed to effectively train adaptive attentional styles for specific stress inducing events such as bushfires.

The aim of this study is to investigate how several types of cognitive bias are related to individual differences in anxiety and behavioural preparedness for bushfires. 

The project will sample participants from early 2011 fire-affected communities in Western Australia who have reported low, medium and high trait anxiety, and cognitive biases including anxiety, worry and preparedness behaviour.

The cognitive biases that will be assessed are:

  • Risk estimation: whether people estimate the chance of a negative event occurring higher than the chance of a positive event occurring
  • Attentional bias: whether people automatically attend to negative, threatening information
  • Interpretation bias: whether people interpret ambiguous information in a negative manner Memory bias: whether people remember negative events better than positive events
  • Mental imagery: whether people can more easily and more clearly imagine a negative situation than a positive situation

With the results of this study, we will be able to identify which maladaptive cognitive biases are linked to maladaptive preparedness behaviour. This will allow us in subsequent studies to use cognitive bias modification techniques to change the pattern of the bias to a more adaptive pattern, and thus, improve preparedness.