Individual differences in the selective processing of threatening information, and emotional responses to a stressful life event

Colin Macleod, R. Hagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

266 Citations (Scopus)


Previous research has established that high levels of trait anxiety commonly are associated with an automatic pattern of encoding selectivity, operating to favour the processing of emotionally threatening information. It has been suggested that this processing bias may play a functional role in mediating emotional vulnerability by moderating affective responses to stressful real life events. The current experiment employs a longitudinal design, capable of addressing the central predictions arising from this theoretical position. Thirty-one women awaiting colposcopy investigation were screened on both traditional questionnaire measures of emotional vulnerability, and on a modified emotional Stroop task that provided objective indices of their automatic and strategic patterns of processing selectivity. Subsequently, those 15 women who later received a diagnosis of cervical pathology reported the degree to which this diagnosis had impaired their level of emotional functioning. The results confirm that, at the initial test time, trait anxiety was indeed associated with an apparently automatic tendency to selectively process threat related distractor information. Furthermore, an index of this initial pattern of automatic processing selectivity was consistently the best predictor of the intensity of emotional distress elicited by the subsequent diagnosis of cervical pathology. None of our conventional questionnaire measures were capable of significantly predicting this later emotional response. We suggest that these findings offer empirical support for the hypotheses that patterns of automatic processing selectivity may moderate individuals' emotional responses to stressful life events.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)151-161
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
Publication statusPublished - 1992


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