The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol

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Abstract

Core executive functions such as working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility are integral to daily life. A growing body of research has suggested that acute stress may impair core executive functions. However, there are a number of inconsistencies in the literature, leading to uncertainty about how or even if acute stress influences core executive functions. We addressed this by conducting a meta-analysis of acute stress effects on working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility. We found that stress impaired working memory and cognitive flexibility, whereas it had nuanced effects on inhibition. Many of these effects were moderated by other variables, such as sex. In addition, we compared effects of acute stress on core executive functions to effects of cortisol administration and found some striking differences. Our findings indicate that stress works through mechanisms aside from or in addition to cortisol to produce a state characterized by more reactive processing of salient stimuli but greater control over actions. We conclude by highlighting some important future directions for stress and executive function research.

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