Cognitive-Bias Modification

Over the last twenty years, Professor MacLeod has pioneered an innovative method of treating mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, known as Cognitive Bias Modification. The treatment works by altering automatic and unconscious biases in the way people selectively process emotional information, using simple computer programs and smart phone applications.

When Professor MacLeod was completing his training in clinical psychology in the late 1970s and early eighties, there was a clear distinction between the fields of cognitive psychology, which studies the way the brain processes information, and clinical psychology, which focuses on explaining and treating psychological disorders. Professor MacLeod’s work, which was interested in the relationship between styles of information processing and emotional disposition, tapped into the ‘cognitive revolution’ taking place in the discipline of psychology, helping to bridge the gap between these two fields.

A central – and initially subversive – tenet of MacLeod’s work is the idea that there might be a causal relationship between particular thinking styles and psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. That is, people with depression or anxiety may be prone towards certain thinking styles that privilege negative information – about themselves, others or the world around them – and this is what causes them to be anxious or depressed.

“Across the past 30 years, cognitive models of anxiety disorders and unipolar depression have emphasized the crucial role that selective information processing plays in the development and maintenance of emotional psychopathology”, Professor MacLeod writes. “The extensive research programs generated by these models have demonstrated that anxious and depressed individuals are characterized by particular types of attentional, interpretative, and/or memory bias when processing affective material relevant to their emotional state”.

Cognitive Bias Modification, as the name suggests, aims to correct these automatic and largely unconscious thought processes by subtly altering the patterns of information processing that give rise to harmful thought patterns.

What is perhaps most interesting about CBM is that it does not involve face-to-face counselling or therapy, but rather the use of a computer program that subtly alters the patterns of information processing that give rise to harmful thought patterns. The treatment can be effective after only a few 15-minute sessions, and has already been shown to work for anxiety and addictions. It is now being tested for alcohol abuse, post-traumatic-stress disorder and several other disturbances of the mind.


  • Professor Emily Holmes, Dr Laura Hoppitt, Dr Simon Blackwood, & Julie Ji, Cambridge University, UK
  • Professor Elaine Fox, Professor Nazanin Derakhshan, & Dr Mike Browning, Oxford University, UK
  • Dr Colette Hirsch, Dr Kate Lester, & Professor Thalia Eley, Kings College, London University, UK
  • Prof. Reinout Wiers, Dr Elske Salemink & Dr Bram van Bockestaele, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Professor Manfred Schmitt & Dr Anna Baumert, Simona Maltese, University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany
  • Dr Andrei Miu, Dr Laura Visu-Petrik, Dr Romana Vulturar, Dr Oana Mocan, Liviu G. Crisan et al., Babes-Bolyai University, Transylvania