Attention biases to stimuli with emotional content may play a role in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. The most commonly used tasks in measuring and treating such biases, the dot-probe and spatial cueing tasks, have yielded mixed results, however. We assessed the sensitivity of four visual attention tasks (dot-probe, spatial cueing, visual search with irrelevant distractor and attentional blink tasks) to differences in attentional processing between threatening and neutral faces in 33 outpatients with a primary diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (SAD) and 26 healthy controls. The dot-probe and cueing tasks revealed no differential processing of neutral and threatening faces between the SAD and control groups. The irrelevant distractor task showed some sensitivity to differential processing for the SAD group, but the attentional blink task was uniquely sensitive to such differences in both groups, and revealed processing differences between the SAD and control groups. The attentional blink task also revealed interesting temporal dynamics of attentional processing of emotional stimuli and may provide a uniquely nuanced picture of attentional response to emotional stimuli. Our results therefore suggest that the attentional blink task is more suitable for measuring preferential attending to emotional stimuli and treating dysfunctional attention patterns than the more commonly used dot-probe and cueing tasks.
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