Date of Award

1994

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

First Advisor

James H. Geer

Abstract

Recently, attention has been given to the cognitive processing of aversive emotional, or threat-related, information. Although investigations have often focused on anxiety disordered individuals, it is suggested that examination of "normal" individuals with varying levels of anxiety will increase the understanding of the cognitive processing of aversive emotional, or threat-related, information. It has been hypothesized that high anxious individuals exhibit an attentional bias toward threat-related emotional information. The response of low anxious individuals to threat-related information is unclear. Some evidence suggests that non-anxiety disordered individuals employ a mechanism that inhibits or interferes with the processing of threat-related, emotional information. The current study examines the cognitive processing of aversive emotional, or threat-related, information using a lexical decision task (LDT). The LDT, which requires subjects to decide if a letter string is or is not a word, has examined cognitive processing of nonemotional information as well as aversive emotional, or threat-related, information. In the current study, 94 subjects with differing anxiety levels, indexed by the STAI, responded to a computer-driven LDT. The LDT included 384 trials consisting of an attention capturing plus (+) sign followed by a prime word which was replaced by a target letter string. Subjects indicated whether the target letter string represented a word in the English language by pressing keys on a computer keyboard. The design of the study involved a 2 x 4 within-subjects variation of target word emotionality (emotional, nonemotional), and the relationship between the prime and target words (emotional prime unrelated to target (e.g. STUPID-BEATEN), nonemotional prime unrelated to target (e.g. CRADLE-BEATEN), prime related to target (e.g. ABUSED-BEATEN), and prime identical to target (e.g. BEATEN-BEATEN)). Word length and familiarity were matched between categories. Emotionality of words and semantic relatedness was determined by pilot subjects. Results indicated general support for the existence of a mechanism that appears to compete, inhibit, or interfere with the processing of emotional information. High and low anxious individuals exhibited differential patterns of the hypothesized inhibition. Results also indicated greater interference of processing social threat in comparison to physical threat or nonemotional targets.

Pages

99

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