More Information about the Dot-Probe Paradigm

Psychological evidence from the lab and from the clinic has shown that our minds continuously filter our experiences, including our view of ourselves and our interactions with others. This filter largely determines how we feel about and react to the world.

The idea of the dot-probe task (or, more formally, the Visual Probe Task, which was initially developed by MacLeod, Mathews, & Tata in 1986) is to measure how strongly your attention is drawn toward and held by specific types of stimuli. There are many different versions of this task, in which the user is to locate the position of dots or the nature of the probes; in which the stimuli are faces or other emotion-relevant stimuli; and in which the stimuli are shown for different lengths of time. Often we ask whether attention is selectively directed toward social threats, such as frowning faces, or perhaps toward positive social feedback, in the form of smiles. In our demonstration task we show one smiling and one frowning face on each trial: The speed with which you are able to identify arrow probes that replace a frown (compared to a smiling face) indicates the degree to which your attention was automatically drawn toward the frown during the split second that the pictures were displayed.

Why is this important? From the moment babies first open their eyes, they are exquisitely attuned to faces, and smiling faces in particular. The need for social contact continues throughout life. How we experience our contact with the social world is influenced by our mental habits - our automatic and even unconscious thoughts and feelings about self and others. These psychological habits include a person's self-concept and self-esteem, their social skills and expectations regarding interactions with others, and their emotional associations to the idea of relying on relationship partners, trusting friends, being evaluated by people in authority, and so on. Your habits of thought shape the way you filter your experience. If your frame of mind on a given day is such that you pay attention to warm, supportive feedback from other people, you may interpret unclear interactions in a positive way, focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses -- in general you may find the warmth and kindness in your relations with other people. If your focus is instead negatively biased, you may tend to be on the lookout for social threats like criticisms and rejections, and you may worry more about any flaws of your own that might provoke those kinds of negative reactions. This latter focus is likely to make the world seem more threatening than it otherwise is.

A person's focus of attention can play a role in mood, anxiety, self-confidence and stress among other reactions. In one study by Dandeneau and colleagues (2007), participants were put in a stressful situation (solving difficult arithmetic problems) and measures were taken of the amount of the stress hormone cortisol circulating in their body. They also did a dot-probe test. People who tended to have their attention automatically drawn toward rejecting faces also tended to show the highest levels of cortisol release in response to the stressful situation.

Some additional information and references about this interesting task can be found on Wikipedia, here:

MacLeod, C., Mathews, A. M., & Tata, P. (1986). Attentional bias in emotional disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 15-20.

Dandeneau, S. D., Baldwin, M. W., Baccus, J. R., Sakellaropoulo, M., & Pruessner, J. C. (2007). Cutting stress off at the pass: Reducing vigilance and responsiveness to social threat by manipulating attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 651-666.

The new Mindhabits App called PsychMeUp! is now available for iPhone/iPad or Android: