Winning or not losing? The impact of non-pain goat focus on attentional bias to learned pain signals: The impact of non-pain goal focus on attentional bias to learned pain signals

Martien G S Schrooten*, Stefaan Van Damme, Geert Crombez, Hanne Kindermans, Johan W S Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Insights into the nature of cognitive bias, including attentional bias to threat signals, are considered pivotal to understanding (chronic) pain and related distress. It has been put forward that attention to pain-related threat is normally dynamic and relates to the motivational state of the individual. In this experiment we aimed (i) to replicate the finding that attentional bias for pain signals in healthy participants can be reduced when a non-pain goal is pursued, and (ii) to extend this finding by taking into account the outcome focus of the non-pain goal. We hypothesised that the reduction in attentional bias for pain signals by concurrent non-pain goal pursuit would be stronger with non-pain prevention goals than with promotion goals.

METHODS: Healthy university students performed an attentional bias task (i.e. spatial cueing task) containing visual cues that signalled the possible occurrence of a painful stimulus (electrocutaneous stimulus at tolerance level) or its absence, in combination with a non-pain goal task (i.e. digit naming task). The non-pain goal was either related to acquiring a positive outcome (gaining money depending on digit-naming performance; promotion goal group, n=31) or related to avoiding a negative outcome (losing money; prevention goal group, n=31). A standard attentional bias task served as the control condition (control group, n=31).

RESULTS: Spatial cueing effects were larger for pain cues than for no-pain cues, indicating attentional bias for pain signals. The pattern of results suggests that this effect was indeed reduced in the goal groups as compared to the control group, but there was no significant group difference.

CONCLUSIONS: We found no statistically-significant evidence for the impact of non-pain goal pursuit or outcome focus on pain-related attentional bias. At best, there were indications of a reduced attentional bias for pain signals with non-pain goal pursuit that was either promotion- or prevention focused.

IMPLICATIONS: These data add to the small but growing body of literature on the assumed relevance of motivational context in explaining variations in attentional bias. The results trigger new questions on the nature and assessment of pain-related attentional bias, and more specifically attentional bias for fear-conditioned pain signals (versus safety signals), from a motivational perspective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)675-686
Number of pages12
JournalScandinavian Journal of Pain
Issue number4
Early online date3 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • Journal Article
  • fear conditioning
  • motivation
  • experimental pain
  • goal pursuit
  • attention
  • fear

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