Informationprocessing biases in PTSD

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There have been a number of studies of PTSD using information-processing methodologies derived from the cognitive psychology literature. Again, as with panic and generalised anxiety, we can only consider a selection of this research here.

The most direct investigation of attention in PTSD used the dichotic-listening task with a group of Vietnam veterans with PTSD (Trandel & McNally, 1987). The participants repeated a message presented to one ear while ignoring an (unattended) message relayed simultaneously to the other ear. The variable of interest was the amount of processing that items in the unattended message received. This reflects the degree of attentional bias to those items. Trandel and McNally found no evidence of attentional bias for seven PTSD-related target items in the unattended message. However, given the error variance associated with this paradigm, it is possible that the number of target stimuli was too small to pick up any attentional effects.

Other studies of attentional processing in PTSD have used a modified Stroop colour-naming paradigm (see the section on GAD for a description of this methodology). Research indicates that individuals who have PTSD following a traumatic event show greater Stroop interference to words related to the trauma, whereas traumatised individuals without PTSD show no such interference effects (e.g., Thrasher, Dalgleish, & Yule, 1994).

Memory biases (see MacLeod & Mathews, 2004, for a summary) have been found on an autobiographical memory task with both Vietnam war veterans and adult survivors of childhood incest (McNally, Litz, Prassas, Shin, & Weathers, 1994). Both groups exhibited deficits in retrieving specific autobiographical memories to a set of cue words. The effect is especially pronounced in veterans with PTSD who wear combat regalia in daily life. This finding of differences in memory style for threat-related material contrasts with the lack of effects found with more generally anxious participants (e.g., Burke & Mathews, 1992). We have suggested earlier that the lack of a bias in GAD participants may be, in part, because the stimuli used in the tasks did not mesh closely enough with the concerns of the subjects. This sort of interpretation is given extra weight by the findings of other forms of memory biases in PTSD using material specifically related to their trauma (cf. Coles & Heimberg, 2002). McNally, Metzger, Lasko, Clancy, and Pitman (1998), using the directed forgetting paradigm, found that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse with PTSD recalled more negative to-be-forgotten items than did survivors without PTSD.

Finally, Dalgleish (1993) examined judgemental bias in survivors of a major disaster with and without PTSD. It was shown that only those survivors with PTSD generated elevated judgements of the probability of a range of negative events happening in the future. Engelhard, Macklin, McNally, van den Hout, and Arntz (2001) reported that internal states such as intrusive thoughts were interpreted in a more dangerous manner than were similar thoughts in a control group.

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