It is difficult to completely avoid attentional bias. Often, the influence of this type of bias on our thinking is at such a deep, automatic level that we are not aware it is happening.
Feedback and practice
In some cases, it appears that it is possible to reduce the effects of attentional biases through training. For instance, depressed participants can be trained to focus more on positive stimuli.12 However, in this context, study participants were not merely practicing on their own; instead, they were receiving feedback from the researchers that reinforced focus on positive stimuli and discouraged focus on the negative. To apply this in the real world, if there is a specific type of attentional bias one is looking to avoid, it might help to enlist a friend or family member who can point out moments you fall into biased thinking, and offer reminders to zoom out.
For individuals suffering from depression or anxiety, some treatments, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), involve examining attentional bias and learning strategies to challenge it. This is often done using worksheets, where the client recounts an upsetting situation and explores the role that attentional bias might have played in how they interpreted it.
Plan around bias pitfalls
For some types of attentional bias, it is often possible to plan in a way that minimizes the risk of that bias arising. Remember our hypothetical trip to the grocery store? Scheduling your food shopping for sometime one is not likely to be hungry—after dinner, for example—will likely reduce attentional bias for unhealthy items, making it easier to avoid them.
Try some mindfulness exercises
In recent years, mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as a tool to boost attention and improve productivity. As much as it has become a buzzword, there is actually empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of mindfulness practice—including as a tool to reduce attentional bias.
In one study, researchers compared attentional bias in experienced meditators versus non-meditators. The participants were shown images of both neutral and emotional faces, and their eye movements were tracked. The results showed that meditators spent significantly less time looking at angry and fearful faces. What’s more, while non-meditators showed attentional bias for both angry and happy faces, meditators only showed this effect for happy faces.
This experiment suggests that, over time, getting into the habit of mindfulness meditation can minimize certain kinds of attentional bias. One caveat: the meditators in this study had been practicing mindfulness, on average, for over twelve years—not a commitment most of us are willing or able to make. Luckily, other research has found that even shorter mindfulness programs can help reduce attentional bias.17