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The Effects of Attention Allocation on Fear Extinction

  • Author(s): Liao, Betty
  • Advisor(s): Craske, Michelle G
  • et al.
Abstract

The dissertation consists of one experimental study investigating the potential method for improving exposure therapy outcomes for anxiety disorders through the manipulation of attention allocation. If proven effective, these methods can be utilized to optimize exposure therapy for anxiety disorders or be considered as adjunct interventions intended to compliment and enhance exposure therapy.

Although the literature on fear conditioning and the literature on selective attention to threat have received wide support and have consequently implicated the treatment of anxiety disorders in their own right, there is very little integration and reconciliation of the two into a more parsimonious, yet comprehensive, theory of anxiety development, maintenance, and treatment. This study attempted to integrate both bodies of work by examining the effect of attention bias modification training upon Pavlovian fear extinction. This study tested the prediction that training attention towards the threat cue (CS+) would facilitate fear extinction; whereas training attention towards the safety cue (CS-) would impair fear extinction. High trait-anxious participants (N=44) were trained to attend towards the threat cue, towards the safety cue, or equally to both cues in a modified dot probe task. Next, transfer of attention processing tendencies was examined in a differential conditioning paradigm across 2 visits. Results indicated participants trained to attend towards the safety cue demonstrated temporary enhancement of extinction performance, but it did not persist through Visit 2. On the other hand, participants trained to attend towards the threat cue demonstrated reduced fear responding on an expectancy measure of conditioning that did not become apparent until Visit 2. These results suggest that attention training towards the threat cue may benefit extinction learning in the long-term and that attention training towards the safety cue may provide short-term relief from fear.

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