Experimentally induced and real-world anxiety have no demonstrable effect on goal-directed behaviour

C. M. Gillan, M. M. Vaghi, F. H. Hezemans, S. van Ghesel Grothe, J. Dafflon, A. B. Brühl, G. Savulich, T. W. Robbins

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Background: Goal-directed control guides optimal decision-making and it is an important cognitive faculty that protects against developing habits. Previous studies have found some evidence of goal-directed deficits when healthy individuals are stressed, and in psychiatric conditions characterised by compulsive behaviours and anxiety. Here, we tested if goal-directed control is affected by state anxiety, which might explain the former results.

Methods: We carried out a causal test of this hypothesis in two experiments (between-subject N = 88; within-subject N = 50) that used the inhalation of hypercapnic gas (7.5% CO2) to induce an acute state of anxiety in healthy volunteers. In a third experiment (N = 1413), we used a correlational design to test if real-life anxiety-provoking events (panic attacks, stressful events) are associated with impaired goal-directed control.

Results: In the former two causal experiments, we induced a profoundly anxious state, both physiologically and psychologically, but this did not affect goal-directed performance. In the third, correlational, study, we found no evidence for an association between goal-directed control, panic attacks or stressful life events over and above variance accounted for by trait differences in compulsivity.

Conclusions: In sum, three complementary experiments found no evidence that anxiety impairs goal-directed control in human subjects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1467-1478
Number of pages12
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number9
Early online date2 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

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