Marcel Meyer

The Think-Tank seminar series

The tight grasp of threat and the (counter) forces of personality


Marcel Meyer, Département des Neurosciences fondamentales Centre médical universitaire (CMU) Faculté de médecine Université de Genève & Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, Switzerland

Date and time

12:00 - 1:00pm, 7 December 2012


Cognitive models of threat processing maintain that threat, depending on the task at hand, can speed (e.g. when task relevant) or impair (e.g. when task irrelevant) cognitive performance (Pessoa, 2009). It is generally assumed that attentional bias to threat is modulated by anxiety, with increased anxiety leading to increased bias (Bishop, 2007; Mathews & Mackintosh, 1998; Mathews, Mackintosh, & Fulcher, 1997). Evidence suggests that such biases are not actually specific to anxiety, however, and instead form part of a broader personality spectrum of negative affect or neuroticism (Griffith et al., 2010; see also the Tripartite model for a similar proposition Clark & Watson, 1991; Clark, Watson, & Mineka, 1994), of which anxiety is but one facet. Furthermore, such emotion-linked attentional biases to threat may be modulated not only by task demands, but also by individual differences in ‘regulatory’ traits, including emotion regulation and attentional control capacity. Most previous studies have focused on the influence of threat on spatial and temporal aspects of attention. It has recently been suggested, however, that threat material may also influence higher-level ‘executive’ attention processes, such as response inhibition. I present a series of experiments where I examine the influence of threat related material on different tasks of executive attention: the Stroop task, the Flanker task, and the Stop-signal inhibition task. In addition, I examine the influence of trait negative emotion (neuroticism) and regulatory traits (emotion regulation and attentional control) on selective processing of threat material. In two Flanker tasks, I find no evidence of prioritized processing of threat material, but, instead, speeded responses to happy cues. By contrast, a Stroop task revealed impaired performance to angry targets. Similarly, in a Stop signal task, I find that response inhibition (stopping) is slowed in the presence of angry facial expressions, and such slowing is greater in individuals high in trait neuroticism. However, this influence of neuroticism is moderated by individual differences in emotion regulation, such that good emotion regulation ‘buffers’ the impact of neuroticism. Findings are discussed in relation to current neuro-cognitive models of threat processing.


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