Impacts of trait anxiety on attention and feature binding in visual working memory

  • David Spalding

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In their Attentional Control Theory (ACT), Eysenck et al. (2007) suggested that anxiety impacts top-down and bottom-up attentional processes. Elsewhere, Hitch et al. (2020) have posited that both top-down and bottom-up attention are key components of visual working memory. Although there is some existing evidence that trait anxiety disrupts visual working memory (e.g., Moreno et al., 2015; Spalding et al., 2021), investigations of the relationships amongst anxiety, attention, and working memory remain limited. Further research is needed to determine the degree to which experiences of anxiety are related to attention, and how these experiences could affect working memory. The aim of this research was to determine attentional factors that influence feature binding in visual working memory, and how these may interact with self-reported trait anxiety. Studies 1 and 2 respectively assessed the role of cognitive strategies (prioritisation) and suffix presentation (interference) in memory performance. In each case, there were no significant effects of anxiety observed. Accounting for potential individual differences in working memory capacity, which may be affected by anxiety, Studies 3 and 4 assessed whether cognitive load (low vs high), memory type (shape vs binding), or memory set size (three vs four items) affected performance and interacted with anxiety. Results supported previous research (Spalding et al., 2021), whereby moderate-to-high levels of self-reported trait somatic anxiety were associated with reduced binding memory. Moreover, trait cognitive anxiety was associated with improved individual feature memory. Findings suggest that higher levels of anxiety may be associated with enhanced visual perception, but also reduced working memory capacity. This supports the assumption in ACT that anxiety diminishes cognitive performance by occupying executive resources and facilitating perceptual processing. Future research should aim to develop on the novel findings of this work to better determine the specific experiences of anxiety that may impact cognitive performance.
Date of Award22 Oct 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SupervisorLouise Brown Nicholls (Supervisor) & Joanne Cleland (Supervisor)

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