Attentional control and estimation of the probability of positive and negative events

Cogn Emot. 2020 May;34(3):553-567. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2019.1657382. Epub 2019 Aug 25.


People high in negative affect tend to think negative events are more likely than positive events ("probability bias"). Studies have found that weak attentional control exaggerates another negative affect-related cognitive bias - attentional bias - but it is not clear why this might be. We therefore wanted to know whether weak attentional control would be related to probability bias too. Four studies, with predominantly female student samples (N = 857), revealed correlations of around -.38 between attentional control and probability bias. This remained significant when trait anxiety and depression were controlled; there were no interactions between attentional control and negative affect. Studies 3 and 4 found that attentional control's relationship with probability bias was partly mediated by emotion regulation ability. These results suggest attentional control is important for regulating affect-related cognitive biases, and for emotion regulation in general. Furthermore, because cognitive biases are thought to be important for maintaining emotional disorders, these results are also consistent with weak attentional control being a risk factor for these disorders.

Keywords: Probability bias; attentional control; depression; negative affect; trait anxiety.

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Attentional Bias*
  • Emotional Regulation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Probability*
  • Students
  • Young Adult