Cognitive bias, worry, and behavioural preparation for bushfire threat: Enhancing preparedness through the modification of thought

Presentation at Research Forum of the 2012 Bushfire CRC and AFAC Annual Conference.

It is now well-established that people differ systematically in terms of how they selectively process potentially threatening information. Certain individuals display attentional vigilance for such information, and consistently impose threatening interpretations on ambiguity. Others attentionally avoid threatening information, and routinely interpret ambiguity in a benign manner. The former cognitive style can impart high costs in terms of emotional well-being, and leads to heightened anxiety, which may interfere with good decision making. In contrast, the latter cognitive style is associated with lower levels of dispositional anxiety and a higher degree of emotional resilience. It would, however, be misguided to assume that the latter style of cognitive selectivity is necessarily more adaptive than the former. In particular situations, such as in bushfire exposed communities, it is crucial that fire-relevant threat information be processed effectively in order that appropriate behavioural steps can be taken to mitigate the genuine danger posed by this threat. Patterns of cognitive bias that serve to attenuate anxiety, by reducing the selective processing of threat information, may alleviate worry in such settings with counterproductive consequences if worry plays a role in motivating adaptive preparation. The research program described in this presentation is designed to investigate the relationship between individual differences in the selective processing of threatening information, in anxiety and worry, and in adaptive preparation for bushfire threat. Findings will be presented from the first phase of this work, carried out using a bushfire exposed community sample. These data suggest that the patterns of cognitive bias that attenuate anxiety and worry do compromise the translation of the preparatory intention into preparation action. The second phase of the research program also will be discussed, in which we are seeking to enhance adaptive preparatory behaviour by directly inculcating the patterns of selective information processing most conducive to good preparatory action, using recently developed cognitive bias modification procedure

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