Managing the threat through the modification of thought

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The way people feel and think will influence the way they act when faced with a threat such as the possibility of a bushfire in their area. This project investigated the relationship between anxiety, worry, and cognitive biases in residents of a bushfire prone area.

The project was led by Professor Colin MacLeod (University of Western Australia) and Professor David Morrison (Murdoch University), with Dr Lies Notebaert and Dr Patrick Clarke, both of the University of Western Australia making up the research team.

The study identified the patterns of information processing that lead people to most effectively engage in bushfire preparatory behaviour, which reduces their exposure to bushfire danger. The work sampled participants from 2011 fire-affected communities in Western Australia, who reported differing levels of anxiety and worry about fire risk. The study assessed a range of cognitive biases in attention, interpretation, memory and mental imagery.

The research was structured into two themes. Theme one investigated the relationship between patterns of emotion and patterns of cognition, and examined how these patterns contribute to behaviour when faced with threat. Theme two considered the findings in the emerging field of cognitive bias modification. Cognitive bias modification works by changing the types of information an individual focuses on and the way in which they use the information. The findings have shown that patterns of cognition can be changed using simple computerised tasks. This research, conducted largely in clinical settings, has shown that by modifying patterns of cognition, patterns of emotion can also be changed. Theme two further developed and improved these cognitive bias modification techniques, in order to ultimately apply these to modify maladaptive patterns of cognition and emotion associated with inadequate bushfire preparedness.

As part of the project, the researchers developed a proof of concept prototype iPhone application to help people exposed to the risk of a bushfire engage more actively in bushfire preparedness. The proof of concept prototype app helped study participants follow through on their intentions to prepare for a bushfire by ‘training the brain’. "Over a period of time,” said Professor MacLeod, “the brain can be trained to adopt a particular pattern of processing and, by extended practice, to complete tasks that encourage this pattern."

Note that the iPhone app was a proof of concept prototype only, developed to investigate if the concept of ‘training the brain’ to follow through on bushfire preparation intentions was possible.