Executive Functioning, Focus and Attentional Bias

Attention must be paid
How come that sometimes seems
so VERY hard to do?

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Self-Health Series

Attentional Bias and FOCUS

“Executive functioning” is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes,[1] including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving [2] as well as planning, and execution.[3] (also known as cognitive control and the supervisory attentional system) ~ Wikipedia

Central to the idea of “control” is the concept of intentional FOCUS.

Intentional focus means exactly that — you can focus where you want, when you want, for as long as you want — and shift focus to something new (and BACK again) any time you want. (see The Dynamics of Attending for the implications of on that idea)

Can anybody really DO that?

Those of us with Alphabet Disorders don’t usually kid ourselves that we are the absolute rulers of our skip-to-my-Lou minds. But even those of you who feel that you do fairly well in that regard might be surprised at how often your focus is skewed unintentionally through a concept known as attentional bias.

About attentional bias, Wikipedia says it is a term commonly used to describe the unconscious inclination to note emotionally dominant stimuli more quickly and prominently, effectively “neglecting” factors that do not comply with the initial area of interest.

The concept implies that stimuli that do not comply with the emotionally dominant stimuli will be “neglected,” reducing our attention toward a great number of the many things coming our way — and ultimately negatively affecting our ability to prioritize action in ways we might ultimately prefer.

Sort of, but not really

While it certainly seems to be true that anything that “hooks us emotionally” will pull our focus away from more neutral stimuli, other reasons for attentional bias exist.

More accurately, attentional bias describes the tendency for a particular type of stimuli to capture attention, the familiar “over-riding” the importance of other input.

For example, in studies using the dot-probe paradigm (a computer-assisted test used by cognitive psychologists to assess selective attention), patients with anxiety disorders and chronic pain show increased attention to angry and painful facial expressions.[2] [3]

But we’ll also see increased attention to an item written in a bold color (or in a person’s favorite color), to names similar to our own among a list of names (or that of a close relative), or a familiar sound mixed intermittently with less familiar sounds.

Scientists believe that attentional bias has a significant effect on a great many items we must deal with moment-by-moment, which tends to have an exacerbating impact on quite a few “conditions.”

Some of those “conditions” include depression, anxiety, chronic pain, eating disorders and other addictions, and many other areas that might not, at first glance, seem related – like task-anxiety and follow-through to completion.

Extensively explored by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and frequent collaborator Amos Tversky, the concept of cognitive bias explains something that most of us have readily observed, and frequently struggle to explain —

The actions of human beings aren’t always rational!

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While numerous studies have been performed to test cognitive bias theories, we must not forget that the studies themselves bias their outcomes — any study can only find what it looks for and can measure.

What gets looked for is unconsciously skewed by what we think we will find, a process referred to as attentional bias.

However, if we explore more completely, we can look to our common sense (and common experiences) to help us find our way through the maze of statistics and studies.

Two different forms of attentional bias may be easily measured, so have been studied extensively. Again, according to Wikipedia, these two types of attentional bias seem to be the result of different mechanisms, and both are not always present in the same sample of study participants.

  • A ‘within-subjects’ bias occurs when an individual displays greater bias towards one type of information when compared to different types of information .

As only ONE example, captured by eye tracking movement recording procedures, smokers linger on smoking cues longer than on neutral cues. (Attentional bias is often measured by eye tracking movements, and is thought to be an underlying factor in substance use and abuse. )

When a smoker was presented with smoking cues, brain scans also indicated higher activation in the orbitofrontal cortex (known to be coordinated with drug-seeking behavior), as well as the insular cortex and amygdala (involved in our autonomic and emotional states).[6][7]

Brain activity has also been shown to decrease upon the beginning of smoking, when the greatest attention is on the task — which indicates that when smoking cues are nearby it is harder for a smoker to concentrate on other tasks (seen in the activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known for focusing attention on relevant stimuli.)[8][9]

  • A ‘between-subjects’ bias occurs when one group of participants displays greater bias than another group of participants (for example, smokers show greater bias towards smoking cues than non-smokers who have never smoked).

Another scale to measure attentional bias

A commonly used paradigm to measure attentional bias is the Stroop effect, which points to the brain’s ability to maintain cognitive control, suppressing a habitual response in favor of one that is less familiar or automatic.

The Stroop Test is frequently used to measure selective attention, cognitive flexibility and processing speed, and as a tool in the evaluation of executive functions.[7][8]

An example of The Stroop Effect

An example of the Stroop effect is the finding that naming the color of the first set of words is easier and quicker than the second. [http://addandsomuchmore.com/2014/03/22/executive-functioning-focus-and-attentional-bias/]

Name the COLOR (aloud)

Take a moment to read the text immediately to your left – but say aloud only the color in which the text is printed.

For almost everyone, naming the color of the first set of words seems to be easier than the second — judging by the fact that most people respond more rapidly in the naming of the first group.

Most people tend to be measurably slower and more hesitant naming the color of the second set of words, where the name of the color and the color of the printing differ.

In the version above, the brain’s knowledge of the meaning of the written word seems to interfere, “biasing” the brain toward forgetting the goal of the test: to read the color of the words, not the words themselves.

The test is usually timed, and the list frequently contains 100 such words.  Scoring includes how many words were read during the time limit, the accuracy of the responses and (sometimes, but not in every case) an individual measure of timing for each readout.

The longer the list, the more pronounced the Stroop effect.

Increased interference (over and above a random sampling of the neurotypical population) is commonly found in individuals with traumatic brain injury [TBI], neurodegenerative diseases and dementias, ADD, depression, and a variety of mental/psychological disorders like schizophrenia, and addictions.[7][9][10]

Distorting Incoming Info

The tendency to distort sensory information coming at us happens in both predictable and unpredictable ways — depending on common  cognitive tendencies in most human-beings, in contrast to our individual psychological profiles and the many associations activated whenever we think of a particular concept, activity, or object (our cognitive maps, or what developmental psychologist Jean Piaget refers to as “cognitive schema”  — plural, schemata).

While useful in helping us to organize and make sense of our world, biases and schemata can all too easily become rigid, distorting our view of our experience in ways that aren’t so useful.

Unfortunately, cognitive schemata can also be blamed for “closed-mindedness” – the knee-jerk rejection of certain types of information, people, experiences, tastes, textures or other sensations.

Cognitive Dissonance and Reframing

As some of you may recall from an earlier article, Confirmation Bias & The Tragedy of Certainty:

[Most of us are] familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Stanford professor Leon Festinger to describe the unsettling “That CAN’T be right!” feeling, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is.

  • Festinger described cognitive dissonance as a distressing mental state where people find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know or what they have consciously chosen, or holding opinions incongruent with other opinions that they have researched and embrace.
  • The concept underlying cognitive dissonance is that the more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. Because the brain is a pattern-recognition instrument, we have a tendency to go with what feels right, regardless of the evidence.
  • Sometimes that “instinct” serves us, but many times it only serves to keep us stuck in paradigms that don’t. The only thing we can “know for sure” about our strong beliefs and knee-jerk judgments is the degree of our own personal biases.

Deliberately courting cognitive dissonance – actively embracing new experiences and ways of looking at things that contradict past assumptions, can expand the territory boundaried by our biases, opening our paradigms and showing us new light at the end of new tunnels.

Affirmations and Dissonance

However . . . when it comes to any attempt to reprogram ones’ own subconscious mind or that of a client, the biggest mistake I see in the “onward and upward” fields is pushing too far too fast.  It will almost always backfire.

The brain’s “pattern recognition” mechanism will reject anything that seems incongruent with what it thinks it already knows.

(c) Phillip Martin – artist/educator

For example, as I continue to recover from the mugging at gunpoint last December, it would be foolish of me to affirm that “I feel no fear as I walk down the darkened street in front of my house.”

My subconscious is no dummy —
it recognizes fear when it feels it!

Were I to chant the particular affirmation above, the only thing I would be affirming is that I can’t trust myself, I lie — the exact opposite of what I need to feel as I journey toward wholeness.

So, for me, a more effective affirmation would be:
“My emotional reactions are at an overtly manageable level – I am able to walk down the street as if I feel no fear, remaining alert to my environment so that I can react quickly and appropriately to any signs of danger.” 

Meanwhile, I can concentrate on breathing in and out in a steady rhythm, consistent with a calm stroll down the street.

That much I CAN control – which affirms to my subconscious that I am in control, so it can relax its guard a bit.

Coupled with the second affirmation, my feelings of safety and security increase, which is exactly the direction I want to go.

Feeling Stuck or Defiant?

If you’ve been attempting some changes and have been experiencing a bit of “push-back” from your inner-kid, try stepping back a bit.  Relanguage what you are saying to yourself internally, so that it reflects what’s going on NOW as it illuminates the direction you’d like to travel.

  • None of us responds well to having our feelings invalidated – which is exactly what some of the affirmation up-languaging is really doing, if you think about it — a subtle way of shaming and should-ing all over ourselves.
  • Back up Jack!  I think you’ll find it works a whole lot better.

Repeat after me:

I will not should on myself TODAY!

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I’m thinking I’ll be ready to get back to work with a limited number of clients by the end of March or the beginning of April – and I’ll tell you honestly whether I can or cannot offer what you need. (Former clients who have been waiting patiently since the mugging will get first dibs on my [reduced number of] appointment slots, so be SURE to let me know if you’re still interested in working with me)

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

35 Responses to Executive Functioning, Focus and Attentional Bias

  1. My son had ADHD as a child and could never concentrate for long on anything. I used to try and help him by teaching him Chess and making sure there were no other distractions in the room at the time. Chess is excellent for improving concentration, especially if the person is competitive as my son was/still is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You underscore an important concept, Stevie: concentration is a skill that can (and usually must) be TRAINED.

      In some ways it’s like sit-ups – most people can’t do many until they’ve done increasingly more over time. The trick is that we have to pick concentration tasks that the “trainee” finds at least interesting if not compelling to get those “reps” in (and it helps to have a person encouraging us to keep it up, vs. brow-beating us not to stop).

      Many educators, coaches and parents don’t seem to understand the importance that carrot vs. stick concept. 🙂 We need to decrease the pressure, not the other way around (and it is a person-specific endeavor).

      Good job with your son. You were also training compensation structures to compensate for short-term memory deficits.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, he did have a terrible short term memory, and he doesn’t have many memories of his early childhood, which is a shame.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s common with ADD, Stevie. We can only recall what was registered at the time and determined by the brain (PFC or amygdala-dependent) as important enough to move from short-term memory into long-term storage in a process known as consolidation. Sleep plays a HUGE role there, and 75% of ADDers experience sleep struggles.

          I’ll be he DOES have more memories than either of you realize of whatever captured his focus and imagination at the time — found to be so in a few hypnosis reports, but they aren’t the same as yours.

          As a result of their training, Psychologists who don’t know about or understand this dynamic sometimes suspect early child abuse when nothing of the sort was present, since suppression or repression of early memories is a red flag for early abuse.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I remember the school sent him to a child psychologist because of his short term memory problems. The psychologist gave him a string of numbers to remember and then recite back. Leon not only recited them perfectly, he also recited them backwards as well! The psychologist was impressed and told me even he couldn’t have done that. We came to the conclusion that Leon remembered only what he wanted to, which is exactly what you said in your reply. Once again I applaud your insight Madelyn!

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’m impressed by Leon’s number fluency. I couldn’t “pass” those repeat-backwards tests even today – and I’ve worked on my short-term memory my entire life since diagnosis.

              Depending on the length of the string, I even struggle to do it forwards! Numbers might as well be Sanskrit for me – nonsense syllables that barely stick.

              A different area of the brain is “in charge” of concepts, rhymes and rhythms, however, so I had no trouble remembering lines during my years as an actress – even Shakespeare.

              I can recall certain monologues even today. Dates and phone numbers – nope! That’s why God made datebooks. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

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  3. Helen says:

    Thanks for your article, it was very informative. I came looking for how to work with a pattern of behaviours where I experience an underpinning cognitive dissonance that I’ve only just recognised. I loved it that you suggested listening to your subconscious and feeding it realistic statements that don’t invalidate what you’re actually sensing.

    My inherent pattern is that I’m not allowed (I’d be being selfish) to look after myself or succeed at something unless it’s an incidental piggyback on caring for someone else or helping them succeed. So when I try to do something to succeed directly for myself I end up feeling some fear and end up in fight/ flight mode, and just don’t get the task or thing done. Reframing hasn’t worked with this so far.

    Your article offers a few clues on how to work through this. Have you written anything else that address this issue? Thanks muchly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You will probably find it easier to read the rest of my longish response ON the page – so click over to read it under the article on which you commented (vs. from the notification dropdown).
      What a lovely acknowledgment, Helen. Changes like the one you are grappling with are exactly why I do what I do. Thank you.

      My own affirmation for that “selfish” nonsense (installed by my Grandmother in my childhood) was, “I AM a Self, and I can be counted on to act in my own best SELF interest” (recalling a time in my youth where someone told me stop being childish and I responded, confused, “But I AM a child.”)

      If you can’t yet believe “and I can be counted on to…,” soften it to something like “so it is perfectly acceptable for me to…” — or whatever represents what you CAN believe.

      What you are describing sounds like it is on the order of a habit of thought. I offer a few ideas about how I personally change my thinking in the following post (beginning with a brain-based explanation of what is happening if you can’t):
      Overcoming the bad to get to the GOOD

      As far as leading you directly to what else would be helpful, I wouldn’t know what to suggest unless I had a better sense of you. I’ll do my best, but feel free to book a consultation or hire me for coaching for more personalized help. (use the e-me link at the top of each page).

      My BEST advice otherwise is to click the “lighter grey” links included in and under practically every article I post.

      You will find that I have written tons on most of the subjects I have taken on here. If you don’t see something related on the list of most recent articles on the sidebar, the best way to find things is to click #1 on the LinkList dropdown at the top menubar of every page [The Master LinkList], where you will find a list of LinkLists organized by topic, essentially in alpha order. Each individual LinkList is top-down (oldest first) by title, so you can pick and choose or move through them in order.

      You can also use the search box at the top right of the site for specific terms (i.e., “confirmation bias” or “habits” or “Executive Functioning”) – or click the tags at the bottom of each article in teeny print. That will bring up a blogroll of “related” articles, where you can read a beginning excerpt and click through for more (like the way reblogs would work if WordPress Coders actually used their own platform).

      Hope this helps.
      xx, mgh
      IMPORTANT: I offer the content at no charge for personal growth only – all articles are protected by copyright and most are on their way to publication in one of a variety of books, so specific attribution is required (like for a term paper or something quoted on your own blog or website, where it must be linked back to where you got it)

      Permission must be requested and received for anything you publish in paper format – anywhere. (See bottom of Home/New for the “sharing rules”) I’ve been lax about this in the past, hoping I could count on the integrity of my students and readers, but as I move closer to publication I can no longer look the other way for copyright violations.


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  28. Jean Latting says:

    This is excellent, Madelyn! Just the other day, someone asked me how could he better focus his attention on getting done what he wants to get done instead of being distracted by other things. You have provided an excellent summary of what gets in the way of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jean! Thanks too for stopping by and commenting.

      This Wednesday I’m beginning the new Habit Series that will further illuminate what gets in the way (and suggests how to develop habits to work around it). FOCUS can be often be developed like any other habit – so tell your friend.

      I’m still scrambling to play catch-up with all I wasn’t able to handle until the cast came off, but as soon as I see a bit of daylight I’ll pay a visit to see what YOU have been up to lately.



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