Sonia Bishop

Research Expertise and Interest

cognitive neuroscience, neural mechanism supporting attention, emotions and their interactions, individual differences in cognitive control and emotional responsivity; neural substrate of anxiety; genetic factors modulating recruitment of cortical control and limbic affective mechanisms

In the News

What use is worry? Psychologist explains anxiety’s pros and cons

Excessive worry about COVID-19 is becoming a mental health pandemic unto itself. But when is anxiety useful, and when is it destructive? At UC Berkeley, Sonia Bishop, associate professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, has studied anxiety and how it affects decision-making. 

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
January 5, 2021
Alison Escalante
UC Berkeley professor Sonia Bishop had been doing work on anxiety when she heard about a colleague's research, showing that people can learn one environment and then adapt quickly when that environment suddenly becomes volatile. The findings were getting a lot of buzz, but all Bishop could think is, "Anxious people are going to have a problem doing that." Now, in a new study Bishop and her fellow researchers have shown just that. People who were anxious or depressed had difficulty adjusting to a rapidly changing environment. On the other hand, what the researchers called "resilient" people did adjust well, especially when they focused on their successes. In fact, they got a learning boost from success. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Stories on this topic have appeared in several sources, including Psychology Today, Ladders , Ladders , Big Think , and Good News Network.
March 23, 2020
Yasmin Anwar
Fear and anxiety helped our early ancestors survive very real threats, says associate psychology and neuroscience professor Sonia Bishop in a Q&A about anxiety and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. "Today, our fear response helps us act quickly in the face of modern dangers, like freezing in place instead of stepping into the path of an oncoming speeding car. In the case of this COVID-19 pandemic, our anxiety motivates us to run through different courses of action and identify the best options available to us. This process of simulation can result in successful future planning, but also in chronic worry, which can be exhausting, distressing, and debilitating." Offering tips for managing one's own anxiety, she also talks about what we can do to help our children with theirs. "Research suggests that children may possess the most extreme models of the world as being a safe, controllable place. Those models are reinforced by adults who try to shield them from the worst of the world. If children's models of the world as a safe place are suddenly shaken, they may suffer anxiety or stress reactions. Hence, with COVID-19, we need to help them adjust gently. Maybe we can tell them we are staying at home more because there is a new bug that can make old people quite sick, so we don't want to risk spreading it to them. It also helps to give them age-appropriate answers and reassurance. For example, you can tell them that children don't seem to get very sick from it." This story originated at Berkeley News. It was also reposted in the Berkeley Patch.
March 18, 2020
Amy McKeever

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, people are rushing to stores on "panic-buying" excursions, and evolution explains the phenomenon. Associate psychology and neuroscience professor Sonia Bishop studies how anxiety affects decision-making, and she suggests that the current situation is a textbook case of that. Referring to inconsistent messaging from the government, media, and public health authorities, she says, "We're not used to living in situations where we have rapidly changing probabilities." Ideally, she says, we should be taking the so-called "model-free learning" approach to assessing our risk in the face of uncertainty. That means trial and error -- using our personal experiences to gradually adjust our estimates of how likely something is to happen, how bad it would be if it does happen, and how much effort we need to put into preventing it. She says that when we don't have a model for how to cope with a threat, many people turn to model-based learning, a framework in which we either try to recall examples from the past or simulate future possibilities, and that's where "availability bias" creeps in. According to the reporter: "When we've heard or read about something a lot -- for instance, a plane crash covered extensively in the news -- it becomes so easy to imagine oneself in a plane that's crashing that one may overestimate the risk of flying. 'It's that ease of simulating that scenario that then overwhelms our judgements of the probability,' Bishop says."

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