Anxious individuals demonstrate threat-related attention biases both when threat stimuli are presented within conscious awareness and when presented below awareness threshold. Nevertheless, attention bias modification (ABM) research has rarely utilized sub-awareness protocols in an attempt to modify attention patterns and reduce anxiety. Exploring the potential of subliminal ABM is of interest, as it may target attention processes related to anxiety that are distinct from those engaged by supraliminal ABM. Here we examined the effect of a subliminal ABM training protocol on levels of social anxiety and stress vulnerability. Fifty-one socially anxious students were randomly assigned to either ABM or placebo condition, and completed a pre-training assessment, four training sessions, a social stressor task, and a post-training assessment. Results indicate that the subliminal ABM used here did not induce detectable changes in threat-related attention from pre- to post-training as measured by two independent attention tasks. Furthermore, the ABM and placebo groups did not differ on either self-reported social anxiety post-training or state anxiety following stress induction. Post-hoc auxiliary analyses suggest that ABM may be associated with smaller elevations in state anxiety during the stressor task only for participants who demonstrate attention bias toward threat at baseline. Implications and future research directions are discussed.
Keywords: attention bias modification; masking; social anxiety; stress vulnerability; subliminal.