Cognitive bias in action: evidence for a reciprocal relation between confirmation bias and fear in children

J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2014 Mar;45(1):26-32. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2013.07.005. Epub 2013 Jul 19.


Background and objectives: Some cognitive models propose that information processing biases and fear are reciprocally related. This idea has never been formally tested. Therefore, this study investigated the existence of a vicious circle by which confirmation bias and fear exacerbate each other.

Methods: One-hundred-and-seventy-one school children (8-13 years) were first provided with threatening, ambiguous, or positive information about an unknown animal. Then they completed a computerized information search task during which they could collect additional (negative, positive, or neutral) information about the novel animal. Because fear levels were repeatedly assessed during the task, it was possible to examine the reciprocal relationship between confirmation bias and fear.

Results: A reciprocal relation of mutual reinforcement was found between confirmation bias and fear over the course of the experiment: increases in fear predicted subsequent increases in the search for negative information, and increases in the search for negative information further enhanced fear on a later point-in-time. In addition, the initial information given about the animals successfully induced diverging fear levels in the children, and determined their first inclination to search for additional information.

Limitations: As this study employed a community sample of primary school children, future research should test whether these results can be generalized to clinically anxious youth.

Conclusions: These findings provide first support for the notion that fearful individuals may become trapped in a vicious circle in which fear and a fear-related confirmation bias mutually strengthen each other, thereby maintaining the anxiety pathology.

Keywords: Anxiety; Children; Cognitive bias; Confirmation bias; Fear.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Bias*
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Communication*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Knowledge*
  • Male
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Visual Analog Scale