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Threat bias in attention orienting: evidence of specificity in a large community-based study

  • G. A. Salum (a1) (a2), K. Mogg (a3), B. P. Bradley (a3), A. Gadelha (a1) (a4), P. Pan (a1) (a4), A. C. Tamanaha (a1) (a4), T. Moriyama (a1) (a4) (a5), A. S. Graeff-Martins (a1) (a4) (a5), R. B. Jarros (a2), G. Polanczyk (a1) (a5), M. C. do Rosário (a1) (a4), E. Leibenluft (a6), L. A. Rohde (a1) (a2) (a5), G. G. Manfro (a1) (a2) and D. S. Pine (a6)...

Preliminary research implicates threat-related attention biases in paediatric anxiety disorders. However, major questions exist concerning diagnostic specificity, effects of symptom-severity levels, and threat-stimulus exposure durations in attention paradigms. This study examines these issues in a large, community school-based sample.


A total of 2046 children (ages 6–12 years) were assessed using the Development and Well Being Assessment (DAWBA), Childhood Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and dot-probe tasks. Children were classified based on presence or absence of ‘fear-related’ disorders, ‘distress-related’ disorders, and behavioural disorders. Two dot-probe tasks, which differed in stimulus exposure, assessed attention biases for happy-face and threat-face cues. The main analysis included 1774 children.


For attention bias scores, a three-way interaction emerged among face-cue emotional valence, diagnostic group, and internalizing symptom severity (F = 2.87, p < 0.05). This interaction reflected different associations between internalizing symptom severity and threat-related attention bias across diagnostic groups. In children with no diagnosis (n = 1411, mean difference = 11.03, s.e. = 3.47, df = 1, p < 0.001) and those with distress-related disorders (n = 66, mean difference = 10.63, s.e. = 5.24, df = 1, p < 0.05), high internalizing symptoms predicted vigilance towards threat. However, in children with fear-related disorders (n = 86, mean difference = −11.90, s.e. = 5.94, df = 1, p < 0.05), high internalizing symptoms predicted an opposite tendency, manifesting as greater bias away from threat. These associations did not emerge in the behaviour-disorder group (n = 211).


The association between internalizing symptoms and biased orienting varies with the nature of developmental psychopathology. Both the form and severity of psychopathology moderates threat-related attention biases in children.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Dr G. A. Salum Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre, Ramiro Barcelos, 2350, room 2202, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 90035-003. (Email:
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