Still very much in its infancy, it’s fair to say that Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM) has caused somewhat of a stir.
Essentially, CBM is a cognitive training exercise whereby common distortions in thinking are modified using a series of basic computerised selection tasks (for example by attuning to positive images over negative ones). Despite their sounding so similar, CBM and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are very different in practice (the latter being instead a traditional ‘talking therapy’).
The potential, it is argued, of CBM lies in its ability to be delivered anywhere, without the need for a psychological therapist. For this reason, some are even suggesting it can be used as a preventative tool to eliminate emotional distress.
What we know already
CBM exists on the shoulders of extensive research in experimental psychology, particularly in the area of; unsurprisingly; cognitive biases. Fellow blogger Shirley Reynolds gives an excellent overview of cognitive biases.
In a nutshell, we know that when people are anxious, they selectively attenuate to anxiety-provoking stimuli. This is likely a survival thing. It helps to be aware of the bear, in order to run in the opposite direction. This is a cognitive bias. Likewise, we know that when people are depressed, they have a tendency to selectively attend to negative information regarding themselves, others and the world. This understanding led, in part, to the development of CBT. Evidence suggests that CBM does indeed modify these cognitive biases.
Areas of uncertainty
The difficulty with CBM, many argue, is that whilst it may remedy certain cognitive biases, the therapeutic value remains questionable. Essentially, despite modification in biases, evidence does not support that this necessarily leads to significant symptom improvement in clinical trials. Is it a classic case of association versus causality?
This uncertainty is further compounded by weak methodology. Often studies into CBM have suffered from small sample sizes and other forms of research bias.
Despite all of this, a number of CBM-inspired mobile Apps are freely available.
What’s in the pipeline?
It is early days. CBM research is still in a transition from laboratory to real-world clinical settings. Addressing questions such as ‘how can we translate training in a laboratory to real-world times of emotional distress?’ may give us a clearer idea of the efficacy of CBM in a clinical context.
Furthermore, as more rigorous studies are conducted, a clearer idea of the efficacy of CBM will hopefully begin to emerge.
Cristea, I. A., Kok, R. N., & Cuijpers, P. (2015). Efficacy of cognitive bias modification interventions in anxiety and depression: meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 206, 7-16. [Abstract]
Koster, E. H., Fox, E., & MacLeod, C. (2009). Introduction to the special section on cognitive bias modification in emotional disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118, 1-4. [Abstract]
Written by: Patrick Kennedy-Williams
Last updated: Sep 2015