Attention Bias Modification

Attention Bias Modification (ABM) – also sometimes called Cognitive Bias Modification – may be an inexpensive and effective way of enhancing standard treatment for social anxiety.

The standard approach to social anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on teaching people to modify their thoughts about social situations.

First the client is asked to track thoughts before a group meeting. Typical thoughts might be…

  • “I’ll probably blow it. My mind will go blank and I won’t be able to think of anything to say.”
  • “I don’t really have anything interesting to say. Compared with other people I am boring.”
  • “I’ll probably make a fool of myself.”
  • “It will be a disaster.”

The therapist then identifies distortions in these automatic thoughts and helps the person to have more realistic views.

Attention Bias Modification, on the other hand, trains people to shift their focus at an unconscious level.

The popular Think-Ups app is a good example (available for Android and iPhone). Happy Faces

The app is crazy simple. You look at four pictures and select the happy face as quickly as you can. The app tracks how fast you are, and the faster you are, the less you look for distress in social situations.

Previous studies have had mixed results. Some showed that it worked and others did not. Certainly the notion, proposed on one website, that ABM or CBM “may put psychiatrists out of business” is an exaggeration.

This study looked at ABM as an add-on to CBT.

The idea that ABM and CBT may be complimentary is appealing because they work in very different ways. One focuses on changing conscious thought and the other on changing unconscious processes.

And in this study there was a big impact. People getting the combined treatment had a much better response. And given the cost of the treatment (free) this is an appealing idea.

For More Information

Reduce Your Social Stress

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Lazarov A et al. Attention bias modification augments cognitive-behavioral group therapy for social anxiety disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Psychol Med 2017 Dec 20; [e-pub]. (

Hakamata, Yuko et al. “Attention Bias Modification Treatment: A Meta-Analysis towards the Establishment of Novel Treatment for Anxiety.” Biological Psychiatry 68.11 (2010): 982–990. PMC. Web. 22 Jan. 2018.