Working Memory Regulates Trait Anxiety-Related Threat Processing Biases

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Abstract

High trait anxious individuals tend to show biased processing of threat. Correlational evidence suggests that executive control could be used to regulate such threat-processing. On this basis, we hypothesized that trait anxiety-related cognitive biases regarding threat should be exaggerated when executive control is experimentally impaired by loading working memory. In Study 1, 68 undergraduates read ambiguous vignettes under high and low working memory load; later, their interpretations of these vignettes were assessed via a recognition test. Trait anxiety predicted biased interpretation of social threat vignettes under high working memory load, but not under low working memory load. In Study 2, 53 undergraduates completed a dot probe task with fear-conditioned Japanese characters serving as threat stimuli. Trait anxiety predicted attentional bias to the threat stimuli but, again, this only occurred under high working memory load. Interestingly however, actual eye movements toward the threat stimuli were only associated with state anxiety, and this was not moderated by working memory load, suggesting that executive control regulates biased threat-processing downstream of initial input processes such as orienting. These results suggest that cognitive loads can exacerbate trait anxiety-related cognitive biases, and therefore represent a useful tool for assessing cognitive biases in future research. More importantly, since biased threat-processing has been implicated in the etiology and maintenance of anxiety, poor executive control may be a risk factor for anxiety disorders.

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