Anticipated psychosocial stress informs sustained attention performance: A behavioral and physiological perspective

Brau, Julia M.
Fortenbaugh, Francesca C.
Esterman, Michael
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Southern New Hampshire University
The ability to sustain attention is paramount to the completion of daily activities, such as driving or attending to a lecture. Previous studies have suggested that stress prior to cognitive testing leads to changes in attentional performance based on stressor context, but the impact of anticipated stress on attention remains unclear. To answer this question, the current study examined a sample of thirty-one undergraduate students (age 18-35, M=21.5, S.D.=3.1) who either anticipated a psychosocial stressor or completed guided meditation before completing a go/no-go sustained attention task (gradCPT). Subjective measures of anxiety, self-esteem, extraversion, and neuroticism were also gathered along with heart rate and electrodermal activity measures to objectively determine stress reactivity. Correlational analyses revealed negative associations between state anxiety and commission errors (r=-0.5, p=0.048), reaction time variability (r=-0.522, p=0.038), and a positive association between state anxiety and accuracy (d’) (r=0.521, p=0.038) in the stress condition exclusively. When controlling for state anxiety, mixed design ANOVAs revealed a significant main effect of condition on d’ (F(1,28)=5.54, p=0.026), where the stress group showed lower d’. Further, data showed a trend of an interaction on reaction time variability (F(1,28)=3.49, p=0.072) where increased variability across the task duration occurred as a function of condition assignment, and a trend of a main effect of condition (F(1,28)=3.93, p=0.057) suggesting more commission errors under stress. The results suggest that anticipation of a stressor does impact sustained attention, but that performance may exist on a spectrum based on subjective appraisal of the stressor. (Author abstract)