Two people are presented with the same half glass of water: One will interpret the glass as half full while the other will interpret the glass as half empty. Faced with the same information, two people can have very different reactions and interpretations. This is attributable to individual differences in the way in which individuals process and interpret information. Everyday we are faced with ambiguous information that is open to multiple interpretations: your doctor’s office leaves a voice message asking you to call back, but doesn’t indicate whether the matter is urgent. Perhaps your boss emails you to ask for a meeting but doesn’t tell you what the subject is. Or you send a text message to a friend who is always on their smartphone, but this time you do not receive a response right away.

Individuals with chronic worry or Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) tend to assume the worst when they encounter ambiguous information. For instance, while waiting to hear back from a job interview an individual with GAD may assume that the interview went horribly and that they will never get hired. Or in the event their partner asks “to talk”, an individual with GAD is likely to assume the worst–something terrible has happened or their partner wants to end the relationship. When presented with a half glass of water, a person with GAD is more likely to interpret the glass as half empty. People who are low in worry and anxiety tend to react quite differently to uncertain or ambiguous information—they are more likely to interpret such information in a neutral, or even positive way (e.g., the glass is half full).

A tendency to jump to the worst case scenario when confronted with ambiguity or uncertainty can make everyday life really challenging for people with GAD. A person with GAD will tend to stick to what is familiar and clear rather than venture into unknown territory. Several researchers have proposed that a tendency to interpret potentially benign situations in a negative or catastrophic way is a key contributor to chronic worry. So research teams are currently looking to develop new interventions to help individuals with GAD break the habit of jumping to the worst case scenario when they encounter unclear or ambiguous situations.

Colette Hirsh and her colleagues have tested the potential therapeutic effects of ‘interpretation training’ for chronic worry and GAD. Such training involves presenting individuals ambiguous cues and guiding them in making positive and favourable interpretations. Over the years, several computerized training programs have been developed to help people shift unhelpful ways of interpreting situations. The training program that Hirsch and colleagues tested is designed as follows: Participants are presented words that are ambiguous. For example, the word patient can be interpreted to mean someone who is sick and in the hospital (threatening interpretation) or it can be interpreted to mean a kind and helpful person (non-threatening interpretation). After being presented the ambiguous word, participants are shown the corresponding non-threatening meaning in fragment form that they are then asked to complete (e.g., inserting the letter “i” into k_nd turns it into kind). Participants receive feedback from the computer on whether or not they accurately completed the word. In this way, the program repeatedly guides individuals towards benign interpretations. Following one session of interpretation training, Hirsch and her colleagues found that chronic worriers and individuals with GAD already reported a decrease in their anxiety and fewer unwanted, negative thoughts. These are only preliminary findings, but what they do suggest is that self-guided training programs like the one Hirsch and colleagues tested can shift the way people think and may have helpful effects.

Studies by Hirsch and her colleagues provide preliminary support that you can train chronic worriers to more readily interpret the ‘glass as half full’ and that this training improves anxiety. However, research on interpretation training is still in its infancy and much more work is required to assess whether the benefits of interpretation training are maintained outside the laboratory. If interpretation training stands up to multiple tests, it may be a useful add-on to established therapies for GAD, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.