Exogenous cortisol shifts a motivated bias from fear to anger in spatial working memory for facial expressions

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Jan;32(1):14-21. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2006.09.010. Epub 2006 Nov 7.


Studies assessing processing of facial expressions have established that cortisol levels, emotional traits, and affective disorders predict selective responding to these motivationally relevant stimuli in expression specific manners. For instance, increased attentional processing of fearful faces (attentional bias for fearful faces) is associated with fear and anxiety and diminishes after administration of the anxiolytic hormone testosterone. Conversely, attentional bias for angry faces has been associated with higher levels of approach motivation (e.g. anger) and testosterone, but lower levels of cortisol. This negative relation between cortisol levels and bias for angry faces was also seen in a test of biased working memory performance. However, previous research suggests that exogenous glucocorticoids acutely decrease fearful and inhibited behavior and increase aggressiveness. Hypothesizing from these findings, the present study tested this spatial working memory for faces of various emotional expressions (neutral, happy, fearful, and angry) after double-blind, placebo-controlled administration of 40 mg cortisol in 18 healthy young men. It was predicted that cortisol would acutely attenuate memory bias for fearful expressions while increasing memory bias for angry expressions, in effect creating a shift in biased motivated memory from fear to anger. Results largely confirmed the hypotheses. This is the first causal evidence that cortisol differentially regulates spatial working memory for different facial expressions. Possible biological mechanisms are discussed.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anger / drug effects*
  • Anxiety
  • Discrimination Learning / drug effects
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Facial Expression*
  • Fear / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / drug effects
  • Placebos
  • Recognition, Psychology / drug effects
  • Self-Assessment


  • Placebos
  • Hydrocortisone