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Impaired Disengagement from Worry: Dissociating the Impacts of Valence and Internally-directed Attention

Caulfield, Mary Kathleen (2022) Impaired Disengagement from Worry: Dissociating the Impacts of Valence and Internally-directed Attention. Master's Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Contemporary cognitive models of "uncontrollable" worry tend to emphasize negative valence in explaining impaired disengagement, while overlooking other potentially influential characteristics of worry, such as the internal orientation of attention. Despite a distinction in the basic cognitive neuroscience literature between internally-directed attention (e.g., to thoughts) and externally-directed attention (e.g., to external sensory stimuli), no prior studies on worry have experimentally dissociated stimulus valence and attentional direction as potential mechanisms of the cognitive impact of worry. The present study independently manipulated these dimensions to dissociate the contribution of each to impairments in sustained attention.
Participants were randomized to condition in a 2 (negative or neutral valence) x 2 (internally- or externally-directed attention) between-subjects, experimental and prospective design. After a baseline sustained attention assessment, participants alternated engaging in their assigned attention manipulation and a validated sustained attention task. To assess the predictive utility of in-lab attention performance for prospectively predicting response to a salient, ecologically valid stressor for our student sample, trait worry and distress were collected at the time of the in-lab visit (T1) and during a naturalistic stressor (the week before final exams; T2).
There was a main effect of internally-directed attention and an interaction between negative and internally-directed attention, both indicating impaired sustained attention following induction. The negative-internal (worry) group showed faster, more erroneous performance following the induction compared to the slower, more accurate performance in the neutral-internal group, replicating findings from our previous work. Trait worry did not moderate any effects. Sustained attention at T1 did not predict distress or worry in the face of a T2 naturalistic stressor.
These findings augment the literature on the attentional consequences of worry and replicate and extend a previous finding from our group of altered speed-accuracy tradeoffs in the context of experimentally-induced worry. Due to its position at the intersection of ability and strategy, attention to this tradeoff may offer novel insights relevant to theoretical and clinical conceptualizations of worry. This study also provides evidence linking impaired disengagement to internally-directed thought more generally, which could inform the design of future investigations into subjective difficulties with attentional control and unwanted, uncontrollable thought.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Caulfield, Mary Kathleenmkc63@pitt.edumkc630000-0003-0716-9434
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairHallion,
Committee MemberSilk,
Committee MemberPrice,
Date: 24 February 2022
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 28 July 2021
Approval Date: 24 February 2022
Submission Date: 12 November 2021
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 86
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Psychology
Degree: MS - Master of Science
Thesis Type: Master's Thesis
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: worry, perseverative thought, internal attention
Date Deposited: 24 Feb 2022 15:29
Last Modified: 24 Feb 2022 15:29


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