Age-related differences in the attentional white bear

Brandon K. Ashinoff*, Yehoshua Tsal, Carmel Mevorach

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The cognitive aging literature suggests that aging populations exhibit impairments in the proactive inhibition of attention. Although proactive inhibition is often preceded by the allocation of attention toward the predicted or known spatial location of to-be-ignored stimuli, proactive allocation of attention has not been assessed in aging populations. In this study, an older and younger cohort engaged in the attentional-white-bear paradigm which measures proactive allocation of attention. In this task, on 80% of trials, participants must identify a centrally located letter surrounded by congruent or incongruent flanker letters. The flanker locations are fixed and predictable within each block of the study. On 20% of trials, they must identify which of two dots appear first on the screen. One dot appears in the same location as the flanker, and one appears in an empty location during the flanker task. The typical white-bear effect is that, despite the dots appearing at the same time, participants more often report the dot in the location of the flanker (i.e., the potentially to-be-ignored location) to appear first. The magnitude of this effect is interpreted as the magnitude of attentional allocation prior to inhibition. In Experiment 1, there was no difference in the magnitude of the attentional white bear between younger and aging cohorts. However, when the attentional system was sufficiently taxed by reducing the flanker presentation (Experiments 2a and 2b), age-related differences emerged. In particular, older participants showed a reduced white-bear effect, reflecting a potential impairment in the proactive allocation of attention toward the location of expected distractors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1870-1888
Number of pages19
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2019


  • Aging and attention
  • Cognition and aging
  • Cognitive aging
  • Cognitive and attentional control


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