Computational modelling can be used to precisely characterise the cognitive processes involved in attentional biases towards threat, yet so far has only been applied in the context of adult anxiety. Furthermore, studies investigating attentional biases in childhood anxiety have largely used tasks that conflate automatic and controlled attentional processes. By using a perceptual load paradigm, we separately investigate contributions from automatic and controlled processes to attentional biases towards negative stimuli and their association with pediatric anxiety. We also use computational modelling to investigate these mechanisms in children for the first time. In a sample of 60 children (aged 5-11 years) we used a perceptual load task specifically adapted for children, in order to investigate attentional biases towards fearful (compared with happy and neutral) faces. Outcome measures were reaction time and percentage accuracy. We applied a drift diffusion model to investigate the precise cognitive mechanisms involved. The load effect was associated with significant differences in response time, accuracy and the diffusion modelling parameters drift rate and extra-decisional time. Greater anxiety was associated with greater accuracy and the diffusion modelling parameter ‘drift rate’ on the fearful face trials. This was specific to the high load condition. These findings suggest that attentional biases towards fearful faces in childhood anxiety are driven by increased perceptual sensitivity towards fear in automatic attentional systems. Our findings from computational modelling suggest that current attention bias modification treatments should target perceptual encoding directly rather than processes occurring afterwards.
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