Published:  2007-04-01

The effects of social stress and cortisol responses on the preconscious selective attention to social threat

Authors:  Karin Roelofs, Patricia Bakvis, Erno J. Hermans, Johannes van Pelt, Jack van Honk

Tags:  Avoidance, Cortisol, Emotional Stroop task, Masked angry faces, Selective attention, Trier social stress test

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The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effects of social stress and stress-induced cortisol on the preconscious selective attention to social threat. Twenty healthy participants were administered a masked emotional Stroop task (comparing color-naming latencies for angry, neutral and happy faces) in conditions of rest and social stress. Stress was induced by means of the Trier social stress test. Based on the stress-induced increase in cortisol levels, participants were allocated post hoc (median-split) to a high and low responders group. In contrast to low responders, high responders showed a negative or avoidant attentional bias to threat (i.e. shorter latencies for angry than neutral faces) in the rest condition. Most importantly, although low responders became avoidant, the high responders became vigilant to the angry faces after stress induction. There were no such effects for happy faces. Our findings are in line with previous studies in both animals and humans, that associate high glucocorticoid stress-responsiveness with diminished avoidance and prolonged freezing reactions during stress.