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Behav Res Ther. 1992 Nov;30(6):609-17.

Reaction time to threat stimuli in panic disorder and social phobia.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, New School for Social Research, New York, NY 10003.


Two studies assessed response time among clinically anxious subjects and normal controls when presented with threat, positive and neutral stimuli under perceptual (lexical decision) and semantic (category decision) task conditions. In Study 1, panic disorder subjects' (n = 14) performance was compared to that of matched normal controls (n = 14) while in Study 2 social phobic subjects (n = 24) were compared to matched normal controls (n = 24). Relative to matched normal controls, panic disorder subjects but not social phobics tended to show greater slowing in performance on the more cognitively complex (category) task. A second finding, consistent across both studies was that, compared to the normal control groups, both panic and social phobic groups showed significantly slowed responses to threat words in both the perceptual and semantic tasks. Such findings are directly counter to the predictions of a mood congruence hypothesis. This apparent contradiction is resolved by a review of the literature which indicates that mood-related facilitation effects are obtained only in tasks which tap awareness of threat information rather than speed of response. It is suggested that while anxiety may produce enhanced awareness of threat, it may inhibit responsiveness to it. The results of these studies are seen as consistent with ethological theories of inhibited motoric responses under certain threat conditions. Furthermore, the findings suggest that caution is indicated in interpreting slowed reaction time to threat stimuli in tasks such as the Stroop color naming task as purely the result of attentional processes.

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