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  • Neil Bage

Series 2, Episode 11: Attentional Bias

Welcome back to the bitesize behaviour podcast and and I’m going to start this episode by asking you a question. When you are making a really important decision, especially a decision to do with money, do you consider all possibilities - every single possible outcome before you land on the decision. Or do you tend to only focus on a few options, the most dominant options for example, whilst ignoring others?

If the answer to this question is more along the lines of the second statement - you tend to only focus on a few options whilst ignoring others, then you’ll be pleased to know that you are well and truly human. This is what we all do and that’s down to the way we have evolved as a species. And scientists have given this a name too, and that name is Attentional Bias.


Now, let’s try and make this a bit more obvious and real. Imagine that you have been working all day long, and unfortunately skipped lunch. It’s now time to head home and you are really, really hungry. Now, if you are like me when you’re really hungry, you’re likely to be in a state of heightened emotion. Your blood-sugar levels are all over the place and you feel snappy… irritable… and definitely not in the right frame of mind to make important decisions.

In fact, one famous study on court judges found that they handed out harsher sentences before lunch than after lunch. In essence, the research showed that their ability to think clearly reduced during the course of the morning to the point where they stopped thinking carefully about their decisions until they had a bite to eat, which kind of reset their ability to make clearer, better decisions. The tip from this! Don’t make any important decisions when you are hungry!!

Anyway - back to the original story.

So - you’re really hungry, and on your way home, you see an advertisement for a big, tasty hot sandwich, an advertisement that in your normal state of mind, you might not even noticed or ignored. However, in your state of hunger, it's more likely to catch your attention than be ignored.

Or, on your drive home a truck cuts in front of you and nearly causes you to crash. Now, every time you see a truck, your attention towards it is stronger than it was before. This is what I mean by attentional bias, and how we can focus on certain, more salient things whilst ignoring other stuff.


And even though we are talking about money in these podcasts, attentional bias is worth having a quick look at in relation to anxiety and addiction. Research has shown that people who have anxiety disorders have a stronger attentional bias towards things they see as threatening.

For example, if you are scared of confrontation, you are more likely to focus on pictures or words that are related to this fear. Or if you are addicted to something, like smoking for example, you are more likely to focus on words and pictures that reinforce your addiction. There is much research available online about attentional bias and our emotional state; anxiety, stress, worry and so on, so it’s worth checking out if that’s of use to you.

Back to money though and decisions that involve your financial wellbeing.

We need to be careful when we are making important financial decisions that we aren’t being influenced - or more to the point, influenced too strongly - by more dominant messages that are there to catch our attention. This is often the place when scammers live, pushing out messages that get our attention with promises that are always too good to be true. But if we allow these attention grabbing messages to influence how we make a decision, then we could end up being at best disappointed, but at worst, in a place where we suffer financially, and I’d hate for that to happen to anyone.

But it’s not just messages - marketing messages - that attentional bias relates to. Our memories also play a role in how we make decisions, and things that have happened to us in the past - our experiences - when we recall them, can be influenced by attentional bias. This means that stronger, more emotionally led memories can dominate our thoughts at the expense of weaker memories that may hold the key to a better decision being made.


With attentional bias, we need to try and drown out some of the noise and try to see all sides of the story - not just the side that either we want to see, or that someone else wants us to see. Remember that our fears, anxieties (and of course hunger!) can put us into an emotional state where we tend to focus on more salient - more obvious - things.

If this is the case, then it’s wise to pause - give yourself time to gather your thoughts and think about what you need to do. This will give you the best chance at reaching a decision where attentional bias isn’t playing such a dominant role.

That’s it for today. In the next episode of Bitesize Behaviours we’ll look at a behaviour that makes us think some thing are safe when they are dangerous, and dangerous when they are safe! We’ll be talking about probability neglect.

See you next time on bitesize behaviour.

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