Research Article: A relationship between weak attentional control and cognitive distortions, explained by negative affect

Date Published: April 18, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Robert W. Booth, Dinkar Sharma, Faiqa Dawood, Melis Doğan, Haidy M. A. Emam, Sude S. Gönenç, N. Aslışah Kula, Bengisu Mazıcı, Atakan Saraçyakupoğlu, Asad-Ur-Rehman Shahzad, Alexandra Kavushansky.


People high in negative affect (anxiety or depression) show cognitive distortions, specific thinking errors which contribute to the maintenance of their condition. It is thought that weak attentional control is a risk factor for negative affect and emotional disorders, because weak attentional control exaggerates the expression of attentional bias, another cognitive feature of emotional disorders. We wondered whether weak attentional control might similarly exaggerate the expression of cognitive distortions. In two samples of students from Turkey and the UK, we found that weak attentional control was indeed related to cognitive distortions, but this relationship was explained by both variables’ relationships with negative affect. This suggests that weak attentional control, while related to negative affect, does not necessarily exaggerate all of its cognitive features. There seems to be a limit on the affective consequences of poor attentional control, which may limit its clinical usefulness as a risk factor for emotional disorders.

Partial Text

Disorders related to negative affect, i.e. anxiety and depression, are associated with certain cognitive distortions. In this article, we present evidence that the expression of such cognitive distortions is unrelated to attentional control.

Study 1 was conducted with Turkish students studying at a small private university in Istanbul. We assessed their attentional control using the self-report scale commonly used in the attentional bias literature, their anxiety and depression, and their tendency to exhibit cognitive distortions.

Study 2 sought to replicate the results of Study 1 in a larger sample, this time from the UK. This study included an extra measure of anxiety, the trait scale of the state-trait anxiety inventory (STAI, [44]). Although designed as an anxiety measure, the STAI has proven to be sensitive to generalised negative affect [45, 46]. Since we suspected that the attentional control-cognitive distortions link might be accounted for by general negative affect rather than anxiety or depression specifically, we wanted to measure such negative affect as completely as possible. This scale measures anxiety/affect as a long-term trait, unlike the Beck Anxiety Inventory which assesses anxiety symptoms over the previous month, so to increase comparability of the two scales we also switched to the trait version of the BAI (the ‘BAIT’). However, results from the two scales turned out to be very similar.

In two studies, attentional control significantly predicted cognitive distortions, a key symptom–and presumably, a key cause–of negative affect and emotional disorders. However, more careful analyses showed that this relationship was essentially an artefact, resulting from the fact that both control and distortions correlate with negative affect (i.e., with anxiety and depression).




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.