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Anticipated Attack Slows Responses in a Cued Virtual Attack Emotional Sternberg Task

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Abstract

Threatening stimuli have varying effects, including reaction time increase in working memory tasks. This could reflect disruption of working memory or, alternatively, a reversible state of freezing. In the current series of experiments, reversible slowing due to anticipated threat was studied using the cued Virtual Attack Emotional Sternberg Task (cVAEST). In this task visually neutral cues indicate whether a future virtual attack could or could not occur during the maintenance period of a Sternberg task. Three studies (N = 47, 40, and 40, respectively) were performed by healthy adult participants online. The primary hypothesis was that the cVAEST would evoke anticipatory slowing. Further, the studies aimed to explore details of this novel task, in particular the interval between the cue and probe stimuli and the memory set size. In all studies it was found that threat anticipation slowed RTs on the working memory task. Further, Study 1 (memory set size 3) showed a decrease in RT when the attack occurred over all CSIs. In Study 2 a minimal memory set of one item was used, under which circumstances RTs following attacks were only faster shortly after cue presentation (CSI 200 and 500 ms), when RTs were high for both threat and safe cues. Study 3 replicated results of Study 2 with more fine-grained time intervals. The results confirm that anticipation of attack stimuli can reversibly slow responses on an independent working memory task. The cVAEST may provide a useful method to study such threat-induced response slowing.

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