Attentional bias is the way in which we don’t take into consideration all available factors and possibilities when we make a decision or consider something because our attention is often only focused on certain limited factors. Our emotional state often influences what we place our attention on and we have a tendency to pay more attention to something that emotionally stimulates us. The more we are touched emotionally, whether that be in a positive or negative manner, the more we will focus explicitly on this emotional stimulus over any other aspect available to us. Attentional bias affects our brains in the immediate moment but it also affects our memory, which is likely to recall a particular situation in a biased manner, principally retaining the emotion felt over anything else. This cognitive bias can lead us to make bad decisions or to have skewed memories.
Attentional bias was explored during a series of experiments named the “Stroop test”, which consisted of giving participants a list of words printed in different colours and asking them to speak out loud what the colour was but not the word itself. The tests showed that participants had more difficulty in focusing on the colour (taking more time and effort to say the correct one) when the words evoked emotions, for example when arachnophobic participants were shown the names of spiders. In these cases, they were unable to focus solely on the colour of the word as their attention was already focused on the emotional stimulus (i. e. the fear they felt associated with the spider names in that particular case).
This psychological principle has numerous applications in terms of persuasion strategies and can be used to focus attention on certain factors or, inversely, to avoid that any limited focal attention is produced. The best utilisation would of course be to try to create an emotional association with those things on which we want someone to focus and not to invoke any emotional association with those factors on which we don’t want any particular focus.