An experimental examination of attentional bias in medical care during the covid-19 pandemic

Filipa Madeira, Alexandre Vieira, Cicero R. Pereira & Emerson Do Bú, Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa

In many countries, the incidence, prevalence, and mortality rates of the covid-19 virus have disproportionately affected non-white people, but there is a lack of published data explaining this phenomenon. Are admissions to intensive care units proportional among white and black people? Are physicians more likely to, unknowingly, pay more attention to white patients and therefore be more likely to offer them life-saving intensive care treatment? This study examined whether white Portuguese medical students’ reaction to patients is affected by patients’ race in a scenario of limited medical resources. Using an experimental paradigm, the authors asked whether exposure to objects associated with intensive care (vs. neutral objects) increased the attention of white medical students, and whether such attention to intensive care stimuli increased when preceded by white faces (vs. black faces). The results show that medical students’ attention was significantly higher toward intensive care stimuli (vs. neutral stimuli), but that there wasn’t a statistically significant difference in their attention to intensive care stimuli when they were primed with a white face vs. a black face. The paradigm was successful in capturing selective attention in a novel context – the covid-19 pandemic – suggesting that it can be used in future studies as a tool for examining attentional processes in medical research.
Key points
  • 1
       This study examined whether white medical students pay more attention to objects associated with intensive care (e.g., a ventilator), relative to objects not associated with intensive care (e.g., a blender), and whether their attention to objects associated with intensive care is higher when they are first exposed to a white face vs. a black face.
  • 2
       The dot probe is an experimental paradigm developed to assess selective attention. In this study it was used to measure participants’ visual attention to intensive care and neutral stimuli, after being primed with a white face or a black face.
  • 3
       Researchers measured the time between when a dot appeared on the screen and when the participant pressed a computer key corresponding to its location. The faster the reaction, the more the stimulus captured the participant’s attention.
  • 4
       Participants’ automatic reaction to intensive care stimuli was significantly faster relative to neutral stimuli. Participants’ response to intensive care stimuli was not faster when primed with a white face vs. a black face.
  • 5
       The dot-probe paradigm successfully captured attentional bias in a novel context – the covid-19 pandemic – suggesting that it can be used in future studies for examining attentional processes in medical research.

During the dot-probe task, participants saw two stimuli side-by-side on a computer screen. One of the stimuli was associated with intensive care and one of them was neutral. The images then disappeared, and a dot appeared on the screen in the former location of one of the two stimuli. Participants were instructed to indicate the location of the dot as quickly as possible by pressing the corresponding key on the keyboard.  A quicker reaction indicated the participant’s attention to the prior stimulus: the shorter the response, the more the stimulus had captured the participant’s attention. Figure 1 shows a significantly shorter (i.e., faster) reaction time for intensive care stimuli compared to neutral stimuli.

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Call to support research projects about technology and society (FP21-1B)

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The Social Observatory of the ”la Caixa” Foundation has announced a call to support research projects on technology and society in Portugal, using quantitative survey data in social sciences.


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We particularly welcome proposals that study technology and society from the following perspectives: 

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