I'm going to fail! Acute cognitive performance anxiety increases threat-interference and impairs WM performance

PLoS One. 2019 Feb 7;14(2):e0210824. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210824. eCollection 2019.


Stress can impair cognitive performance, as commonly observed in cognitive performance anxiety (CPA; e.g., test anxiety). Cognitive theories indicate that stress impairs performance by increasing attention to negative thoughts, a phenomenon also known as threat-interference. These theories are mainly supported by findings related to self-report measures of threat-interference or trait anxiety. Our main aim was to test, for the first time in a single study, the hypotheses that acute CPA-related stress negatively affects both working memory (WM) performance and objectively assessed threat-interference during performance. In addition, we aimed to assess the validity of a new stress-induction procedure that was developed to induce acute CPA. Eighty-six females were randomly assigned to a CPA-related stress group (n = 45) or a control group. WM performance and threat-interference were assessed with an n-back task (2-back and 3-back memory loads), using CPA-related words as distracters. The stress group showed higher state anxiety and slower WM performance. Both effects were moderated by trait CPA: the effects were stronger for individuals with higher trait CPA. Finally, trait CPA moderated the effect of stress on threat-interference during higher cognitive load: individuals with higher trait CPA in the stress group showed higher threat-interference. We conclude that acute CPA increases threat-interference and impairs WM performance, especially in vulnerable individuals. The role of threat-interference, cognitive load, and trait anxiety should be taken into account in future research. Finally, our method (combining our stressor and modified n-back task) is effective for studying stress-cognition interactions in CPA.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Performance Anxiety / psychology*

Grants and funding

PP received #452-12-003 from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), https://www.nwo.nl/en/funding/our-funding-instruments/nwo/innovational-research-incentives-scheme/vidi/index.html. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.