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Attention and Thought Control

Module by: Mark Pettinelli. E-mail the author

How does the attention process work? Do people who are anxious pay more attention to threatening things in their environment than people who aren't anxious? Do people who are depressed have less motivation and a slower reaction time or do they pay more attention to negative stimuli than positive? There is going to be emotional biases with mental illnesses or each time someone pays attention to something - if someone is experiencing an emotion, than that emotion is going to influence their attention in a certain way. For instance, if someone is experiencing the emotion of 'guilt' then clearly if they see something they feel guilty about they are going to pay attention to it differently (as they would associate and compare the guilt they are feeling with the guilt related to the object they are looking at).

Attention also relates to the thoughts someone experiences - if someone is paying attention to their own thoughts, then they might do things to control their thoughts. Some thoughts are voluntary and people direct or create them consciously, and some are more unconscious and instinctual - thoughts that they have less control over. Wells and Morrison (1994) 1 investigated dimensions of naturally occurring worry and intrusive thoughts in 30 normal subjects. They were asked to keep a diary and record their worries and intrusive thoughts, and they were also asked to rate each thought on the following dimensions:

  1. Degree of verbal thought/imagery involved
  2. Intrusiveness
  3. How realistic the thought was
  4. How involuntary the thought was
  5. How controllable it was
  6. How dismissable it was
  7. How much the thought grabbed attention
  8. Degree of distress associated with the thought
  9. Intensity of compulsion to act on the thought
  10. Degree of resistance to the thought
  11. Degree of success in controlling the thought

Wells and Davies (1994)2 have attempted to distinguish types of thought control strategy. They interviewed patients with a range of anxiety disorders to determine the types of strategy used to control unpleasant and/or unwanted thoughts. Seven types of strategy emerged from the pilot interviews: cognitive and behavioral distraction; punishment; distancing; re- appraisal; mood changing activites; exposure to the thought; worry about more trivial things. Sometimes people might think that their thoughts are likely to come true, or that their worries are not controllable. "Cognitive and behavioral distraction" probably means distraction by your own internal thinking or distraction by you doing something - such as behaving in a certain way. "Punishment" would mean punishing yourself for having a thought you didn't want, distancing would mean somehow separating yourself from the thought, and re- appraisal would mean thinking of the thought differently or assessing that thought in a different way.

Multiple dimentions of emotional control strategy have been found in other studies. For example Mayer et al. (1991) 3 identified three dimenisons of emotion management distinct from dimensions of mood, labelled "suppression" (including distraction), "thoughts of actions" and "denial".

We can to some extent distinguish worry, intrusive thoughts and negative automatic thoughts on criteria such as intensity, unpleasantness, realism, intrusivenss and controllability, but those things are hard to define. How does someone know when the thought they have is 'intense' or when they thought they have is clear and realistic? If the thought is realistic is it going to be clear? I would think that the more realistic the thought is - tied in with reality - the more clear it would be because it is linked to real information. If you are fantasizing your thoughts are more like in a cloud (for example a dream state). It is also hard to tell if a thought is unpleasant, how is someone supposed to know how positive emotionally one single thought is? That seems too hard to measure. Someone might know how easy it is to control their thoughts or how pleasant their thoughts are for a certain period of time, but not every single thought they experience, or even a single reoccurring thought.

Two categories of appraisal are important in determining emotional experience and influencing subsequent coping efforts: primary and secondary appraisal. Primary appraisal is the process of evaluating the personal meaning and significance for well-being of events, which may be irrelevant, benign-positive or stressful. Stress appraisals may be further subdivided into harm/loss, where the person has sustained physical or psychological damage; threat, where harm/loss is anticipated; and challenge, where successful coping may lead to gains. Secondary appraisal is concerned with what can be done to deal with a situation, and includes reviewing the range of coping options available and their likely success in the situation at hand. A third form of appraisal delineated by Lazarus and Folkman (1984)4 is reappraisal, which refers to the changes in appraisal which follow as the event unfolds and new information is acquired, including feedback on the success of attempts to cope.

There are a few more things to consider related to appraisals. How does considering the personal meaning of an event change the feeling involved? How does it change your thinking, and subsequently, what you are paying attention to? How does your history or beliefs change how you make that appraisal? Do you make it with a bias or a unique significance to yourself? Whenever someone makes an assessment, that assessment is unique to themself. When someone makes a secondary appraisal, how does that impact their attention different from their primary appraisal? You first assess a situation (primary appraisal), and then you assess what can be done about it (secondary appraisal), however how do those two actions influence your attention and your thinking? Are the primary appraisal and the secondary appraisals separated out by time or by other thoughts (intrusive or voluntary)?

What types of thoughts do you have in between the first appraisal process and the second one? What occurres with your levels of feeling during this process? - i.e., what happens to you emotionally after a strong appraisal or a strong thought? Does that influence your subsequent thoughts and appraisals? How is your attention to external stimuli fluctuating during this process? What sequence does your significant thoughts/appraisals/emotions occur in, and how does that impact your attention? Do you focus on your emotions or your own thoughts when you pause to consider what happened after you had a significant thought or a significant stimulus input (experience).

It appears that anxiety is only positively associated with on-task effort under rather special circumstances, where there is a strong and immediate perceived threat, or, perhaps, where task performance is appriased as instrumental in effecting avoidance or escape (see Eysenck, 1982)5 That probably means that the decreased performance from anxiety in most other circumstances is a result of people being distracted by the anxiety i.e., scanning their environment for threats or just being distracted by the pain.

Negative mood, which indicates that the environment poses a problem and might be a source of potential dangers, motivates people to change their situation. Negative mood is then thought to be associated with a systematic elaboration of information and greater attention to details. Bodenhausen and colleagues (1994)6, investigating the impact of negative affect of social judgment, showed that induced sadness promotes the use of an analytic, detail-oriented mode of processing, whereas anger induction leads participants to process information on a shallow or automatic mode. If sadness (negative valence, lower arousal) triggered a type of processing identical to that fostered by the negative mood usually induced, anger (negative valence, higher arousal) fostered the hueristic or global mode of processing commonly associated with positive mood states (e.g., happiness or joy). This last result suggests that mood states of opposite valence may have similar effects as they share the same level of arousal (like happiness and anger). Likewise, it has been suggested that motivational-related approach and avoidance behaviors are independent of valence, leading to evidence that both happiness and anger moods are approach oriented, whereas serenity and sadness are avoidance oriented (when someone is depressed they avoid).

A sad mood experienced at our own wedding or birthday party may result in attempts to improve the mood, thus triggering systematic processessing in order to understand why we are sad in a situation that should normally make us happy. The same motivations are less likely to be aroused when the sad mood is experienced in situations where sadness is socially expected (e.g., at a funeral). According to Martin's model (2001)7 people not ask merely: "How do I feel about it?" They ask "What does it mean that I am feeling this way in this context?" In other words, people evaluate the targets by taking into consideration both their mood and some features of situation and doing this configurally. Moods are processed in parallel with contextual information in such a way that the meaning of the mood influences and is influenced by the meaning of other information. The meaning of a mood experience can change in different context, and therefore the evaluative and motivational implications of mood are mutable.

To sum up, the informational value of mood lies not so much in the moods themselves as in the interaction between mood and context. Moods provide input for evaluative, decisional and inference-making processes, and these processes determine the effects that one's mood will have on one's evaluations, motivations, and behaviors. This course of reasoning, known as the context- dependent effect of mood, implies that the influence of mood on one's evaluations, motivations, and behaviors depends on the interaction of mood and the situational conditions.

In accordance with the context-dependent effect of mood, one's mood is not synonymous with one's evaluation. Whether a positive or negative mood leads to a favorable or unfavorable evaluation depends on the meaning of one's mood in that context. The question about the meaning of one's mood in different contexts is therefore a crucial one. In order to answer it, the mood as input model relies on the role-fulfillment process (Martin, 2001), also known as the "What would I feel if...?" process. This process can be characterized broadly as follows: when people make evaluations, they act as if they were asking themselves the question "What would I feel if...?: (For example, "what would I feel if the horror movie I just saw was a good horror movie?"). An evaluation is rendered subjectively when the person compares his/her current moods with the expected feelings. Favorable evaluations arise to the extent to which the person's moods (positive or negative) are congruent with what would be expected if the target had fulfilled a positive role (i.e., if this was a good thing I would feel good, I feel good, so I think this positive thing about it). Unfavorable evaluations, in contrast, arise to the extent to which the person's moods are incongruent with what would be expected if the target had fulfilled a negative role (i.e., if this party was bad, it would make me feel bad, however I feel good).

When people make evaluations, they are thinking more about what is going on then when they don't make evaluations. That is why negative mood enhances attention to detail - because it puts you in the state where you are questioning why the event or environment you are in is making you feel bad. Asking how you might feel if something is felt a certain way is a good way of analyzing the situation. If you think about it, asking how something makes you feel is important - people probably constantly evaluate the events they experience for value or what they got from them. Your mood is going to help you to evaluate those things because those events caused you to have that mood. The mood provides the information of what that event or stimulus does to you - how it makes you feel. If people didn't evaluate how an event or stimulus makes them feel, then they wouldn't really be analyzing that input any further than they normally would.

You basically can be put into a state where you are thinking about what the event or stimulus you are evaluating is like. This state is when you are questioning what the feelings the event made in you are like or what you think about the event. It is interesting that someone can simply not think about those things if they wanted. On the other hand, it seems natural for people who experience negative emotions to think more deeply about the source of those emotions. I guess the trouble that the negative emotions causes them forces one to think more deeply.

Footnotes

  1. Wells, A., + Morrison, T. (1994) Qualitative dimensions of normal worry and normal intrusive thoughts" A comparative study. Behavior Research and therapy.
  2. Wells, A., + Davies, M. (1994) A questionaire for assessing thought control strategies: Development and preliminary validation.
  3. Mayer, J. D Salovey, P., Gomberg-Kaufman, S., + Blainey, K (1991). A broader conception of mood experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 100-111.
  4. Lazarus, R.s>, + Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer.
  5. Eysenck, M.W. (1982). Attention and arousal: Cognition and performance. New York: Springer.
  6. Bodenhausen, G,V., Shappard, L. A., + Kramer, G. P. (1994). Negative affect and social judgment: The differential impact of anger and sadness. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 45-62.
  7. Martin, L.L.(2001). Mood as input: A configural view of mood effect. In J. P. Forgast (Ed.) Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition (pp.135-157). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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