Anxiety and working memory capacity: A meta-analysis and narrative review

Psychol Bull. 2016 Aug;142(8):831-864. doi: 10.1037/bul0000051. Epub 2016 Mar 10.


Cognitive deficits are now widely recognized to be an important component of anxiety. In particular, anxiety is thought to restrict the capacity of working memory by competing with task-relevant processes. The evidence for this claim, however, has been mixed. Although some studies have found restricted working memory in anxiety, others have not. Within studies that have found impairments, there is little agreement regarding the boundary conditions of the anxiety/WMC association. The aim of this review is to critically evaluate the evidence for anxiety-related deficits in working memory capacity. First, a meta-analysis of 177 samples (N = 22,061 individuals) demonstrated that self-reported measures of anxiety are reliably related to poorer performance on measures of working memory capacity (g = -.334, p < 10-29). This finding was consistent across complex span (e.g., OSPAN; g = -.342, k = 30, N = 3,196, p = .000001), simple span (e.g., digit span; g = -.318, k = 127, N = 17,547, p < 10-17), and dynamic span tasks (e.g., N-Back; g = -.437, k = 20, N = 1,318, p = .000003). Second, a narrative review of the literature revealed that anxiety, whether self-reported or experimentally induced, is related to poorer performance across a wide variety of tasks. Finally, the review identified a number of methodological limitations common in the literature as well as avenues for future research. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology*
  • Attention*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Psychological Theory