Threat interferes with response inhibition

Neuroreport. 2012 May 9;23(7):447-50. doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e3283531e74.


A potential threat, such as a spider, captures attention and engages executive functions to adjust ongoing behavior and avoid danger. We and many others have reported slowed responses to neutral targets in the context of emotional distractors. This behavioral slowing has been explained in the framework of attentional competition for limited resources with emotional stimuli prioritized. Alternatively, slowed performance could reflect the activation of avoidance/freezing-type motor behaviors associated with threat. Although the interaction of attention and emotion has been widely studied, little is known on the interaction between emotion and executive functions. We studied how threat-related stimuli (spiders) interact with executive performance and whether the interaction profile fits with a resource competition model or avoidance/freezing-type motor behaviors. Twenty-one young healthy individuals performed a Go-NoGo visual discrimination reaction time (RT) task engaging several executive functions with threat-related and emotionally neutral distractors. The threat-related distractors had no effect on the RT or the error rate in the Go trials. The NoGo error rate, reflecting failure in response inhibition, increased significantly because of threat-related distractors in contrast to neutral distractors, P less than 0.05. Thus, threat-related distractors temporarily impaired response inhibition. Threat-related distractors associated with increased commission errors and no effect on RT does not suggest engagement of avoidance/freezing-type motor behaviors. The results fit in the framework of the resource competition model. A potential threat calls for evaluation of affective significance as well as inhibition of undue emotional reactivity. We suggest that these functions tax executive resources and may render other executive functions, such as response inhibition, temporarily compromised when the demands for resources exceed availability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Emotions
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Reaction Time
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Young Adult