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The Interactive effect of Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms, Attentional Control, and Cognitive Load on Threat-Related Attentional Bias




Clauss, Kate

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Psychological Sciences


Theory and empirical evidence suggest that those with higher posttraumatic stress (PTS) symptoms and better attentional control (i.e., the strategic control of higher-order executive attention in regulating bottom-up, stimulus driven responses to prepotent stimuli; Sarapas, Weinberg, Langenecker, & Shankman, 2017) can use that ability to disengage and shift attention away from threat stimuli (i.e., avoidance/overcontrollers). Those with relatively worse attentional control lack the requisite resources to do this, leading to prolonged attentional engagement with threat stimuli (i.e., maintenance/undercontrollers). Given that attentional control is a limited resource, overcontrollers may not be able to strategically avoid threat information when cognitive load is relatively high. The interaction between PTS symptoms, attentional control, and cognitive load in predicting threat-related attentional bias was examined in the present study to test this hypothesis. In addition, due to the heterogenous nature of PTS disorder (PTSD), it may be useful to determine whether some symptom clusters are more influential than others in predicting the proposed effect. Given that abnormalities in threat-related information processing have been observed across anxiety disorders (Armstrong & Olatunji, 2012; Bar-Haim et al., 2007), it may be that the effect of PTS symptoms on threat bias is anchored to symptoms that are also prominent in anxiety disorders. Participants (N = 149 undergraduate students) were randomly assigned to high or low load conditions. Participants completed self-report measures of PTS symptoms, a behavioral measure of attentional control, and a novel task that assessed threatrelated attentional bias via eye movements and button press. The results of a series of hierarchical regressions showed that attentional control moderated the relationship between PTS symptoms and threat-related attention bias variability in the low, but not high, load condition. This effect was specific to arousal and avoidance symptoms. Thus, consistent with theory, underconditions of higher cognitive load, overcontrollers may not be able to use attentional control to disengage and shift attention away from threat. Study findings suggest that it may be important to consider contextual factors that increase cognitive load, as well as individual differences in attentional control, when developing attention modification interventions to reduce PTS symptomatology.