Research into the investigation of risk has suggested that individuals make use of the availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) when rating the likelihood of future events. According to this heuristic, the frequency of a class of events is estimated as a function of the ease with which instances of such events can be brought to mind. For example, in the judgement of likely causes of death, risk estimations were disproportionately increased by prior exposure to information about lethal events (Lichtenstein, Slovic, Fischoff, Layman, & Combs, 1978). This approach leads to the hypothesis that anxious individuals will find it easier to bring to mind instances of danger-related events and will subsequently show inflated risk estimates for those events relative to control participants.
Butler and Mathews (1983) gave groups of people with GAD, clinically depressed participants, and normal controls a set of three questionnaires concerned with estimating risk. The first questionnaire consisted of brief ambiguous scenarios (e.g., "you wake with a start in the middle of the night, thinking you heard a noise, but all is quiet"). The participants were required first to provide an explanation for why they thought they might have woken up, and then to rank order three possible explanations, one of which was threatening (e.g., "it could be a burglar"). The second questionnaire was concerned with subjective cost, and participants were asked to rate 20 threatening items on a scale in answer to the question "how bad would it be for you ...?". The final questionnaire was concerned with subjective probability. The participants had to rate the probability that positive, neutral, or negative events would happen, first to themselves and second to a significant other. The results indicated that both anxious and depressed participants were significantly more likely than controls to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening, and both groups placed significantly higher subjective cost than controls on the occurrence of threatening events. Similarly, both anxious and depressed groups rated negative events (but not positive) as significantly more likely to happen than did the control participants. Finally, ratings of negative events by the two patient groups for themselves were significantly higher than ratings of the same items when made for another person. MacLeod (1999) has summarised a series of studies that show that anxious individuals are more likely to judge that future negative events will happen to them when compared to normal controls.
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