Clinical Psychology Research

Clinical research in the PLAN Lab focuses on the role attention biases in mental illness. Cognitive accounts of mental illness attribute the onset and maintenance of psychopathology to maladaptive patterns of attention and information processing. Consistent with this approach, researchers have found that people suffering from anxiety selectively attend to “threat” information while people with depression selectively attend to “negative” information. Using a technique known as Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM), members of the PLAN Lab aim to manipulate cognitive biases to 1) model pathological bias in healthy participants and 2) design interventions for people who are vulnerable to disorder-related cognitive biases.

What is CBM: CBM is a computer-based paradigm that typically involves an attention probe task. Participants are presented with a pair of stimuli, one neutral (e.g., a picture of a field) and one disorder relevant (e.g., for depression a picture of a sad face, for anxiety that of a knife). The stimulus pair is followed by a probe, which appears in one of the two stimulus locations. Participants are required to make a speeded judgment regarding the probe location (i.e., left or right side of the screen). To train a negative attention bias, the probe occurs solely in the locus of the negative, disorder related, stimuli. Using this paradigm, numerous studies have demonstrated that biasing attention towards “threat” information in healthy controls significantly increases levels of anxiety.  Such studies were the first to allow researchers to make causal inferences regarding the role of attentional bias in the development of anxiety. When using CBM for treatment purposes, the reverse paradigm is employed. Here the probe only occurs in the locus of the neutral stimuli, thus biasing attention away from pathologically over-attended information.

Based on the success of CBM as a treatment intervention for anxiety and depression, members of the PLAN Lab are currently developing CBM assessment and treatment interventions for eating disorders. We are specifically interested in the mediating effects of perfectionism and impulsivity in predicting attention biases among clinical and sub-clinical eating disordered populations.