Research Article: I’m going to fail! Acute cognitive performance anxiety increases threat-interference and impairs WM performance

Date Published: February 7, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Angelos Angelidis, Ericka Solis, Franziska Lautenbach, Willem van der Does, Peter Putman, Alexandra Kavushansky.


Stress can impair cognitive performance, as commonly observed in cognitive performance anxiety (CPA; e.g., test anxiety). Cognitive theories indicate that stress impairs performance by increasing attention to negative thoughts, a phenomenon also known as threat-interference. These theories are mainly supported by findings related to self-report measures of threat-interference or trait anxiety. Our main aim was to test, for the first time in a single study, the hypotheses that acute CPA-related stress negatively affects both working memory (WM) performance and objectively assessed threat-interference during performance. In addition, we aimed to assess the validity of a new stress-induction procedure that was developed to induce acute CPA. Eighty-six females were randomly assigned to a CPA-related stress group (n = 45) or a control group. WM performance and threat-interference were assessed with an n-back task (2-back and 3-back memory loads), using CPA-related words as distracters. The stress group showed higher state anxiety and slower WM performance. Both effects were moderated by trait CPA: the effects were stronger for individuals with higher trait CPA. Finally, trait CPA moderated the effect of stress on threat-interference during higher cognitive load: individuals with higher trait CPA in the stress group showed higher threat-interference. We conclude that acute CPA increases threat-interference and impairs WM performance, especially in vulnerable individuals. The role of threat-interference, cognitive load, and trait anxiety should be taken into account in future research. Finally, our method (combining our stressor and modified n-back task) is effective for studying stress-cognition interactions in CPA.

Partial Text

Almost every person will face many evaluative situations in life where optimal performance is required and where the result may be consequential, such as exams. Between 10 and 40 percent of students suffer to some degree from test anxiety [1,2]. An even higher prevalence has been found in subgroups such as students with disabilities, women, or minority students [3,4,5,6]. Many students fail in crucial exams due to performance anxiety, despite their ability to do well [7]. Test anxiety is part of the broader phenomenon of performance anxiety, which includes public speaking, stage fright and writing block. Performance anxiety refers to the anxiety that people experience in anticipation of and/or during important tasks, resulting in impaired performance [7]. In this study, the term cognitive performance anxiety (CPA) will be used to refer to the anxiety that arises during demanding cognitive tasks while people are or think that they are under evaluation, such as in test anxiety (cf., [8]). This may occur in any field, including academia (e.g., test anxiety) or work (e.g., public speaking anxiety or an office clerk worrying about a negative evaluation). Moderate levels of stress, including CPA, enhance cognitive performance (e.g., [9.]), but higher levels have detrimental effects [10,11].

No group differences were observed on background characteristics, trait characteristics, or baseline measurements of state anxiety, heart rate activity, and salivary cortisol levels (see Table 1). Sixty-three percent of the control group used hormonal contraception methods (46% used oral contraceptives and 17% used birth control implants, intrauterine devices, or vaginal rings) while the percentage was 74% for the stress group (67% used oral contraceptives and 7% used birth control implants, intrauterine devices, or vaginal rings). A positive correlation was observed between CTAS and STAI-t, r = .46, p < .001. A negative correlation was observed between STAI-t and ACS, r = -.52, p < .001, as commonly reported (e.g., [9,68,69]). A negative correlation was observed between CTAS and ACS, r = -.45, p < .001. The main goal of this study was to investigate the effects of acute cognitive performance anxiety (CPA) on objectively assessed cognitive performance and threat-interference. As expected, the stress group was slower during the WM task, and trait cognitive test anxiety (CTAS) scores moderated this effect. Specifically, individuals with higher CTAS scores were slower under stress. Moreover, CTAS scores moderated the effect of stress on threat-interference during a WM task as assessed by accuracy in the 3-back memory load condition: individuals with higher CTAS scores performed worse during trials with negative evaluation distracters as compared to trials with neutral distracters. Our method to induce and assess performance-like stress produced the intended effect: the stress group indeed had higher subjective and objective stress scores after the stress manipulation than the control group. Moreover, CTAS moderated this effect; specifically, the stressor was more effective in individuals with higher CTAS scores. Trait anxiety did not moderate these effects.   Source:


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