The Effect of Anticipatory Anxiety on Performance in an Attention Task


1Stevens, C., 1, 2, 3Russell, B.A.H., 1,2Hatfield, B.D., 1Department of Kinesiology, School of Public Health, University of Maryland, College Park, 2Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program (NACS), University of Maryland, College Park, 3Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL), University of Maryland, College Park

Purpose: Stress and mental anxiety are common features of daily life, including professional and sporting contexts. The effects of anxiety can have serious consequences, yet how anxiety affects performance in different contexts remains unclear. To better understand how anxiety affects performance the present study examined performance on a vigilance task during three levels of anticipatory anxiety. Methods: Over the course of two sessions, researchers measured the performance of college-age adults (N= 52) on a simple sustained attention task. One of the two sessions included “threat” (T) trials during which participants were at risk of receiving a mild electric finger shock, and “safe” (S) trials that included no threat of shock. The other session involved no shock and No Shock Day (NSD) trials. Self-report and magnitude of the eyeblink startle reflex to a white noise burst were measured to index anxious arousal. Efficiency and effectiveness were measured by reaction time (RT) and hit rate (HR), respectively and tested using a one-way, repeated-measures ANOVA. Results: Self report and mean startle amplitudes for each condition indicated the threat manipulation was effective in modulating anticipatory anxiety among participants. Participants exhibited the least anxiety during the NSD trials and the most during the T trials. Reaction time was significantly slower (RT) during the T condition compared to both the S and NSD conditions (RMANOVA: F(2,96) = 7.72, p = .003*; pairwise comparisons T:S, p ) . There was no significant difference in effectiveness (HR) among the three conditions (F(2,96) = .279, p = .709). Conclusion: Longer reaction times during the threat condition show a decrease in performance efficiency under anxiogenic conditions. A lack of significant difference in hit rate for the three experimental conditions shows that performance effectiveness may be more resistant to changes in anxious arousal than efficiency. These findings are consistent with Processing Efficiency Theory’s (PET) prediction that performance efficiency may be compromised by threat even if effectiveness does not suffer in the short term. Further research may investigate whether reduced efficiency erodes effectiveness over a longer timescale by increasing the energy cost of performance.

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