Cognitive Bias Modification May Decrease Anxiety and Depression

One of the symptoms of anxiety and depression is the tendency to view things negatively, or with a negative bias. People with anxiety show bias toward perceived threats, assuming situations that would otherwise be seen as neutral as potentially harmful.  People suffering with depression do not interpret these same situations as threatening, yet have difficulty moving their attention away from negative thoughts. Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM) is a therapeutic technique that aims to change the bias of these individuals immediately after exposure to a situation or event. Previous research has shown that when negative stimuli were introduced to healthy individuals, they developed a negative cognitive bias. Researchers theorize that perhaps exposing individuals with a pre-existing negative bias to positive stimuli could transform the perception into one of a positive nature, thus reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in people who are resistant to other forms of treatment, such as traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

“Given the large number of patients who remain symptomatic after receiving first-line treatments for anxiety and mood disorders, the novel approach taken by CBM and its potential to assist patients who are not helped by conventional treatments has generated a groundswell of enthusiasm,” said Lauren S. Hallion of the University of Pennsylvania, and lead author of a recent study that tested the effects of CBM on clients with depression and anxiety. Hallion and her colleagues looked at 45 separate studies to determine the effectiveness of CBM immediately after it was implemented, and how it affected symptoms after a stressor was introduced. They found that although CBM showed a positive effect on symptoms after the clients underwent treatment, it was relatively minor. However, they realized that after a stressor was introduced, CBM had a much more profound positive effect. Because CBM targets different biases than CBT, the researchers believe both approaches may be helpful. They added, “If both types of biases contribute to symptoms, and if CBM can in fact modify early attention biases, a conjoint approach involving modification of both types of biases may produce a larger effect on symptoms than would addressing either alone.”

Hallion, L. S., & Ruscio, A. M. (2011, July 4). A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Cognitive Bias Modification on Anxiety and Depression. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024355

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • jacqueline


    October 4th, 2011 at 11:50 PM

    yes it is well known that people with anxiety and depression have their perceptions altered..and if we are to bring back their perceptions to normal this sounds like something that would work..because what we are basically doing is the opposite of what depression or anxiety do..we are applying an equal and opposite force so as to reverse the effects..good start and I am sure this approach could be further developed to make it more efficient.

  • Kathleen


    October 5th, 2011 at 5:28 PM

    I don’t know. I would like to see that this works, but you know there are those individuals out there who are going to be glass half empty instead of half full kind of people no matter how many positive stimuli you throw their way! For them there is no way that you will ever overcome all of that negativity from creeping in an marring how they view the world.

  • Miek


    October 29th, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    There is enough scientific research that shows that a cognitive bias is not the hallmark of depression of anxiety. A lot of people who have NO depression or an anxiety disorder, also have negative cognitive biases. And it is shown that changing negative cognitive biases to positive ones, isn’t a cure for many depressed people.
    So, there is a real flaw on the cognitive theory of depression. And this means that I also have my doubts about the effect the authors describe here.

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