Neurobiological and cognitive models of unconscious information processing suggest that subconscious threat detection can lead to cognitive misinterpretations and false alarms, while conscious processing is assumed to be perceptually and conceptually accurate and unambiguous. Furthermore, clinical theories suggest that pathological anxiety results from a crude preattentive warning system predominating over more sophisticated and controlled modes of processing. We investigated the hypothesis that subconscious detection of threat in a cognitive task is reflected by enhanced "false signal" detection rather than by selectively enhanced discrimination of threat items in 30 patients with panic disorder and 30 healthy controls. We presented a tachistoscopic word-nonword discrimination task and a subsequent recognition task and analyzed the data by means of process-dissociation procedures. In line with our expectations, subjects of both groups showed more false signal detection to threat than to neutral stimuli as indicated by an enhanced response bias, whereas indices of discriminative sensitivity did not show this effect. In addition, patients with panic disorder showed a generally enhanced response bias in comparison to healthy controls. They also seemed to have processed the stimuli less elaborately and less differentially. Results are consistent with the assumption that subconscious threat detection can lead to misrepresentations of stimulus significance and that pathological anxiety is characterized by a hyperactive preattentive alarm system that is insufficiently controlled by higher cognitive processes.
Copyright 1998 Academic Press.