The Impact of Uncertain Threat on Affective Bias: Individual Differences in Response to Ambiguity

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Abstract

Individuals who operate under highly stressful conditions (e.g., military personnel and first responders) are often faced with the challenge of quickly interpreting ambiguous information in uncertain and threatening environments. When faced with ambiguity, it is likely adaptive to view potentially dangerous stimuli as threatening until contextual information proves otherwise. One laboratory-based paradigm that can be used to simulate uncertain threat is known as threat of shock (TOS), in which participants are told that they might receive mild but unpredictable electric shocks while performing an unrelated task. The uncertainty associated with this potential threat induces a state of emotional arousal that is not overwhelmingly stressful, but has widespread—both adaptive and maladaptive—effects on cognitive and affective function. For example, TOS is thought to enhance aversive processing and abolish positivity bias. Importantly, in certain situations (e.g., when walking home alone at night), this anxiety can promote an adaptive state of heightened vigilance and defense mobilization. In the present study, we used TOS to examine the effects of uncertain threat on valence bias, or the tendency to interpret ambiguous social cues as positive or negative. As predicted, we found that heightened emotional arousal elicited by TOS was associated with an increased tendency to interpret ambiguous cues negatively. Such negative interpretations are likely adaptive in situations in which threat detection is critical for survival and should override an individual’s tendency to interpret ambiguity positively in safe contexts.

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