Problematic attention processing and fear learning in adolescent anxiety: Testing a combined cognitive and learning processes model

Helen M. Baker, Tom J. Barry, Veena Kumari, Rakesh Pandey, Niraula Shanta, Jennifer Y.F. Lau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (SciVal)


Background and objectives: Anxiety in adolescence is characterised by disturbances in attentional processes and the overgeneralisation of fear, however, little is known about the combined and reciprocal effects of and between these factors on youth anxiety. The present study investigated whether attention (attention allocation and control) and fear generalisation processes together predict more variance on adolescent anxiety symptoms than each factor in isolation, and explored their interrelations. Methods: 197 adolescents completed a novel conditioning task, which paired balloon cues with mildly aversive or neutral outcomes. A spatial cueing task, and self-report measures of emotional attentional control and anxiety, were also completed. Results: Threat-avoidant attention allocation biases, impaired attention control, and exaggerated fear generalisation together predicted greater variance in anxiety symptoms (55.3%), than each set of fear and attention processes in isolation. Results also provided evidence of an interplay between these factors. Individual differences in threat-avoidant attention allocation biases predicted variability in the generalisation of fear, whilst the association between heightened anxiety and the overgeneralization of fear was moderated by poor attention control. Conclusions: This study provides unique evidence of the combined effects of attention and fear generalisation mechanisms in explaining youth anxiety, and interrelations between these factors. Importantly, results suggested that deficiencies in attention control may bring out anxiety-associated impairments in fear generalisation. Limitations: We relied on self-reported ratings of fear during generalization and also of attention control. Thus demand effects cannot be discounted. Reaction-time measures of attention focus are also indirect assessments of attention that may lack precision.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-153
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2019


  • Adolescence
  • Attention control
  • Combined cognitive biases
  • Fear learning
  • Selective attention bias

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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