Conceptual precision is key in acute stress research: A commentary on Shields, Sazma, & Yonelinas, 2016

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A recent meta-analytic review by Shields, Sazma, & Yonelinas (2016) brings to the fore several conceptual issues within the stress and executive function (EF) literatures. We present a critique of these issues, using the review as an exemplar of how stress and EF are often examined empirically. The review summarizes research suggesting that EF is not only trait-like, but can be also state-like, influenced by factors such as acute stress. It has numerous strengths including its scope in examining EF across domains, inclusion of moderators, and timeliness, given the rapidly expanding field of stress research. We argue that the conclusions would be less equivocal with a more precise and neurally-informed consideration of EF, stressor, and timing assessments. A detailed discussion of these issues is provided, using the inhibition EF domain as an example, in order to illustrate key limitations and potential consequences of broad inclusion criteria. We endeavor to promote precise, shared definitions in the service of delineating a more complete and consistent account of acute stress effects on EF.

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