Research suggests that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may stem from an attention system fixated on threat-related information, leading to repetitive obsessions and compulsions. For instance, experiments where participants listened to two different passages in each ear revealed that they were more adept at spotting fearful words over neutral ones. This heightened sensitivity to threat words indicates that individuals with OCD have a propensity to focus on information linked to potential dangers.

Furthermore, when assessing the attention patterns of OCD washers a similar picture emerged. They demonstrated a particular bias towards contamination words, like those related to illness, as opposed to words related to social threats. This indicates that attention in individuals with washing compulsions leans towards personally relevant information, with words like “virus” or “filth” exerting a more significant influence than words associated with reputation or social threats.

Interestingly, there were also inconsistent results from OCD studies, pointing towards the importance of a temporal dimension within the disorder. Over time, participants appeared to habituate to the presence of threatening stimuli, meaning they no longer fixated on these stimuli. This aligns with the hypothesis that attention bias towards threatening information diminishes after an initial period of exposure.

In fact, research investigating the temporal aspect of exposure to threatening stimuli, a process known as habituation, found that attention bias significantly decreases after the first block of trials in individuals with obsessive-compulsive (OC) symptoms. Importantly, these individuals were not officially diagnosed with OCD but displayed symptoms.

However, in a control group of individuals with low OC symptoms, there was neither an initial attention bias nor a significant change in bias throughout the experiment. It’s also crucial to recognize that this reduction of attention bias extends beyond experimental settings, suggesting that habituation could be a pivotal factor in alleviating OCD symptoms.


Amir, N., Najmi, S., & Morrison, A. S. (2009). Attenuation of attention bias in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behav Res Ther, 47(2), 153-157. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2008.10.020


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