Executive Functioning, Focus and Attentional Bias
Saturday, March 22, 2014 21 Comments
Attention must be paid
How come that sometimes seems
so VERY hard to do?
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Self-Health Series
Attentional Bias and FOCUS
“Executive functioning” is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving  as well as planning, and execution. (also known as cognitive control and the supervisory attentional system) ~ Wikipedia
Central to the idea of “control” is the concept of intentional FOCUS.
Intentional focus means exactly that — you can focus where you want, when you want, for as long as you want — and shift focus to something new (and BACK again) any time you want. (see The Dynamics of Attending for the implications of on that idea)
Can anybody really DO that?
Those of us with Alphabet Disorders don’t usually kid ourselves that we are the absolute rulers of our skip-to-my-Lou minds. But even those of you who feel that you do fairly well in that regard might be surprised at how often your focus is skewed unintentionally through a concept known as attentional bias.
About attentional bias, Wikipedia says it is a term commonly used to describe the unconscious inclination to note emotionally dominant stimuli more quickly and prominently, effectively “neglecting” factors that do not comply with the initial area of interest.
The concept implies that stimuli that do not comply with the emotionally dominant stimuli will be “neglected,” reducing our attention toward a great number of the many things coming our way — and ultimately negatively affecting our ability to prioritize action in ways we might ultimately prefer.
Sort of, but not really
While it certainly seems to be true that anything that “hooks us emotionally” will pull our focus away from more neutral stimuli, other reasons for attentional bias exist.
More accurately, attentional bias describes the tendency for a particular type of stimuli to capture attention, the familiar “over-riding” the importance of other input.
For example, in studies using the dot-probe paradigm (a computer-assisted test used by cognitive psychologists to assess selective attention), patients with anxiety disorders and chronic pain show increased attention to angry and painful facial expressions. 
But we’ll also see increased attention to an item written in a bold color (or in a person’s favorite color), to names similar to our own among a list of names (or that of a close relative), or a familiar sound mixed intermittently with less familiar sounds.
Scientists believe that attentional bias has a significant effect on a great many items we must deal with moment-by-moment, which tends to have an exacerbating impact on quite a few “conditions.”
Some of those “conditions” include depression, anxiety, chronic pain, eating disorders and other addictions, and many other areas that might not, at first glance, seem related – like task-anxiety and follow-through to completion.
Extensively explored by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and frequent collaborator Amos Tversky, the concept of cognitive bias explains something that most of us have readily observed, and frequently struggle to explain —
The actions of human beings aren’t always rational!
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While numerous studies have been performed to test cognitive bias theories, we must not forget that the studies themselves bias their outcomes — any study can only find what it looks for and can measure.
What gets looked for is unconsciously skewed by what we think we will find, a process referred to as attentional bias.
However, if we explore more completely, we can look to our common sense (and common experiences) to help us find our way through the maze of statistics and studies.
Two different forms of attentional bias may be easily measured, so have been studied extensively. Again, according to Wikipedia, these two types of attentional bias seem to be the result of different mechanisms, and both are not always present in the same sample of study participants.
- A ‘within-subjects’ bias occurs when an individual displays greater bias towards one type of information when compared to different types of information .
As only ONE example, captured by eye tracking movement recording procedures, smokers linger on smoking cues longer than on neutral cues. (Attentional bias is often measured by eye tracking movements, and is thought to be an underlying factor in substance use and abuse. )
When a smoker was presented with smoking cues, brain scans also indicated higher activation in the orbitofrontal cortex (known to be coordinated with drug-seeking behavior), as well as the insular cortex and amygdala (involved in our autonomic and emotional states).
Brain activity has also been shown to decrease upon the beginning of smoking, when the greatest attention is on the task — which indicates that when smoking cues are nearby it is harder for a smoker to concentrate on other tasks (seen in the activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known for focusing attention on relevant stimuli.)
- A ‘between-subjects’ bias occurs when one group of participants displays greater bias than another group of participants (for example, smokers show greater bias towards smoking cues than non-smokers who have never smoked).
Another scale to measure attentional bias
A commonly used paradigm to measure attentional bias is the Stroop effect, which points to the brain’s ability to maintain cognitive control, suppressing a habitual response in favor of one that is less familiar or automatic.
An example of The Stroop Effect
Take a moment to read the text immediately to your left – but say aloud only the color in which the text is printed.
For almost everyone, naming the color of the first set of words seems to be easier than the second — judging by the fact that most people respond more rapidly in the naming of the first group.
Most people tend to be measurably slower and more hesitant naming the color of the second set of words, where the name of the color and the color of the printing differ.
In the version above, the brain’s knowledge of the meaning of the written word seems to interfere, “biasing” the brain toward forgetting the goal of the test: to read the color of the words, not the words themselves.
The test is usually timed, and the list frequently contains 100 such words. Scoring includes how many words were read during the time limit, the accuracy of the responses and (sometimes, but not in every case) an individual measure of timing for each readout.
The longer the list, the more pronounced the Stroop effect.
Increased interference (over and above a random sampling of the neurotypical population) is commonly found in individuals with traumatic brain injury [TBI], neurodegenerative diseases and dementias, ADD, depression, and a variety of mental/psychological disorders like schizophrenia, and addictions.
Distorting Incoming Info
The tendency to distort sensory information coming at us happens in both predictable and unpredictable ways — depending on common cognitive tendencies in most human-beings, in contrast to our individual psychological profiles and the many associations activated whenever we think of a particular concept, activity, or object (our cognitive maps, or what developmental psychologist Jean Piaget refers to as “cognitive schema” — plural, schemata).
While useful in helping us to organize and make sense of our world, biases and schemata can all too easily become rigid, distorting our view of our experience in ways that aren’t so useful.
Unfortunately, cognitive schemata can also be blamed for “closed-mindedness” – the knee-jerk rejection of certain types of information, people, experiences, tastes, textures or other sensations.
Cognitive Dissonance and Reframing
As some of you may recall from an earlier article, Confirmation Bias & The Tragedy of Certainty:
[Most of us are] familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Stanford professor Leon Festinger to describe the unsettling “That CAN’T be right!” feeling, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is.
- Festinger described cognitive dissonance as a distressing mental state where people find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know or what they have consciously chosen, or holding opinions incongruent with other opinions that they have researched and embrace.
- The concept underlying cognitive dissonance is that the more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. Because the brain is a pattern-recognition instrument, we have a tendency to go with what feels right, regardless of the evidence.
- Sometimes that “instinct” serves us, but many times it only serves to keep us stuck in paradigms that don’t. The only thing we can “know for sure” about our strong beliefs and knee-jerk judgments is the degree of our own personal biases.
Deliberately courting cognitive dissonance – actively embracing new experiences and ways of looking at things that contradict past assumptions, can expand the territory boundaried by our biases, opening our paradigms and showing us new light at the end of new tunnels.
Affirmations and Dissonance
However . . . when it comes to any attempt to reprogram ones’ own subconscious mind or that of a client, the biggest mistake I see in the “onward and upward” fields is pushing too far too fast. It will almost always backfire.
The brain’s “pattern recognition” mechanism will reject anything that seems incongruent with what it thinks it already knows.
For example, as I continue to recover from the mugging at gunpoint last December, it would be foolish of me to affirm that “I feel no fear as I walk down the darkened street in front of my house.”
My subconscious is no dummy —
it recognizes fear when it feels it!
Were I to chant the particular affirmation above, the only thing I would be affirming is that I can’t trust myself, I lie — the exact opposite of what I need to feel as I journey toward wholeness.
So, for me, a more effective affirmation would be:
“My emotional reactions are at an overtly manageable level – I am able to walk down the street as if I feel no fear, remaining alert to my environment so that I can react quickly and appropriately to any signs of danger.”
Meanwhile, I can concentrate on breathing in and out in a steady rhythm, consistent with a calm stroll down the street.
That much I CAN control – which affirms to my subconscious that I am in control, so it can relax its guard a bit.
Coupled with the second affirmation, my feelings of safety and security increase, which is exactly the direction I want to go.
Feeling Stuck or Defiant?
If you’ve been attempting some changes and have been experiencing a bit of “push-back” from your inner-kid, try stepping back a bit. Relanguage what you are saying to yourself internally, so that it reflects what’s going on NOW as it illuminates the direction you’d like to travel.
- None of us responds well to having our feelings invalidated – which is exactly what some of the affirmation up-languaging is really doing, if you think about it — a subtle way of shaming and should-ing all over ourselves.
- Back up Jack! I think you’ll find it works a whole lot better.
Repeat after me:
I will not should on myself TODAY!
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I’m thinking I’ll be ready to get back to work with a limited number of clients by the end of March or the beginning of April – and I’ll tell you honestly whether I can or cannot offer what you need. (Former clients who have been waiting patiently since the mugging will get first dibs on my [reduced number of] appointment slots, so be SURE to let me know if you’re still interested in working with me)
You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on this site and elsewhere.
For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)
— and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves —
Related articles right here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
(in case you missed them above or below)
- ABOUT Executive Functions
- TYPES of Attentional Disorders
- The Dynamics of Attending
- ABOUT Alphabet City (and “Alphabet Disorders”)
- The Link between Procrastination & Task Anxiety
- ABOUT Processing Speed
- What ARE Executive functions?
- Lessons from the TBI Community
- ADD – what’s in a NAME?
- Confirmation Bias & The Tragedy of Certainty
- Understanding Fear & Anxiety – Part 1
- Shame on Shoulds
Other supports for this article – on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
Related Articles ’round the web
- Daniel Kahneman’s homepage (Princeton.edu)
- Which biases matter most? Let’s prioritize the worst! (overcomingbias.com)
- Attentional bias in emotional disorders (Journal of Abnormal Psychology)
- June 27th – a few cognitive biases from Nolan Plate (plate6.wordpress.com)
- 6 cognitive biases that can hurt how you work (and how to get rid of them) (sandglaz.com)
- Bad News Isn’t Aways Bad: Repeated Exposure To Same Stimuli Dulls Negative Effect (medicaldaily.com)
- Don’t worry! Attention Training as a Treatment for Social Anxiety (abemo.wordpress.com)
- annotation #2 (re: caffeine – altonnettedjones.wordpress.com)
- Long List of Cognitive Biases (rationalwiki.org)
BY THE WAY: Since ADDandSoMuchMore.com is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.