The impact of cognitive load on processing efficiency and performance effectiveness in anxiety: evidence from event-related potentials and pupillary responses

Piril Hepsomali, Julie A Hadwin, Simon P Liversedge, Federica Degno, Matthew Garner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Anxiety has been associated with poor attentional control, as reflected in lowered performance on experimental measures of executive attention and inhibitory control. Recent conceptualisations of anxiety propose that individuals who report elevated anxiety symptoms worry about performance and will exert greater cognitive effort to complete tasks well, particularly when cognitive demands are high. Across two experiments, we examined the effect of anxiety on task performance and across two load conditions using (1) measures of inhibitory control (behavioural reaction times and eye-movement responses) and (2) task effort with pupillary and electrocortical markers of effort (CNV) and inhibitory control (N2). Experiment 1 used an oculomotor-delayed-response task that manipulated load by increasing delay duration to create a high load, relative to a low load, condition. Experiment 2 used a Go/No-Go task and load was manipulated by decreasing the No-Go probabilities (i.e., 20% No-Go in the high load condition and 50% No-Go in the low load condition). Experiment 1 showed individuals with high (vs. low) anxiety made more antisaccade errors across load conditions, and made more effort during the high load condition, as evidenced by greater frontal CNV and increased pupillary responses. In Experiment 2, individuals with high anxiety showed increased effort (irrespective of cognitive load), as characterised by larger pupillary responses. In addition, N2 amplitudes were sensitive to load only in individuals with low anxiety. Evidence of reduced performance effectiveness and efficiency across electrophysiological, pupillary, and oculomotor systems in anxiety provides some support for neurocognitive models of frontocortical attentional dysfunction in anxiety.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)897-909
Number of pages13
JournalExperimental brain research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2019


  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex/physiology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials/physiology
  • Executive Function/physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Male
  • Psychomotor Performance/physiology
  • Pupil/physiology
  • Young Adult

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