Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Is Pressure Stressful? the Impact of Pressure on the Stress Response and Category Learning

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Is Pressure Stressful? the Impact of Pressure on the Stress Response and Category Learning

Article excerpt

Published online: 16 October 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract We examined the basic question of whether pressure is stressful. We proposed that when examining the role of stress or pressure in cognitive performance, it is important to consider the type of pressure, the stress response, and the aspect of cognition assessed. In Experiment 1, outcome pressure was not experienced as stressful but did lead to impaired performance on a rule-based (RB) category-learning task, but not on a more procedural information-integration (II) task. In Experiment 2, the addition of monitoring pressure resulted in a modest stress response to combined pressure and impairment on both tasks. Across experiments, higher stress appraisals were associated with decreased performance on the RB, but not on the II, task. In turn, higher stress reactivity (i.e., heart rate) was associated with enhanced performance on the II, but not on the RB, task. This work represents an initial step toward integrating the stress cognition and pressure cognition literatures and suggests that integrating these fields may require consideration of the type of pressure, the stress response, and the cognitive system mediating performance.

Keywords Pressure · Stress · Category learning · Cognition From family life to social life to work life, pressure and stress are so ubiquitous in modern life that it is no surprise that psychologists have taken great interest in the impact of pressure and stress on cognitive performance. Although the fields of pressure cognition and stress cognition research have proceeded somewhat independently, it is quite common to assume that pressure is stressful (Beilock & DeCaro, 2007;Masters,1992; Staal, 2004). Despite the face validity of this assumption, there have been few direct tests of this prediction. This question is particularly important in light of recent studies demonstrating that cognitive performance can vary as a function of the pressure manipulation (DeCaro, Thomas, Albert, & Beilock, 2011)and the stress response (e.g., Ell, Cosley, & McCoy, 2011). In the present research, we have taken an initial step toward integrating pressure and stress research by examining whether pressure is experienced as stressful.

What is pressure?

Individuals experience pressure when they must perform to their potential in order to achieve a goal (Baumeister, 1984). This type of outcome pressure is often induced by increasing the difficulty of reaching some goal and/or by providing an incentive that is contingent on performance. Outcome pressure is thought to coopt working memory and attentional resources, resulting in impairment in cognitive tasks that are dependent on these processes (Beilock & Carr, 2005; Lewis & Linder, 1997; Markman, Maddox, & Worthy, 2006).

Pressure may also be induced by social evaluation or social monitoring (e.g., an evaluative other present and/or videotaping for later evaluation-DeCaro et al., 2011; Gimmig, Huguet, Caverni, & Cury, 2006). Monitoring pressure, in contrast, is more likely to encourage self-monitoring of task performance than to coopt working memory and attentional resources, resulting in impairment in cognitive tasks dependent on procedural knowledge (DeCaro et al., 2011). Consistent with these predictions, outcome pressure has been shown to impair performance on cognitive tasks dependent on working memory, and monitoring pressure impairs performance on more procedural cognitive tasks (e.g., Decaro et al., 2011). Importantly, however, many pressure situations are multifaceted including both aspects of outcome and monitoring pressure. Such combined pressure situations have been argued to negatively impact performance on both working-memorydependent and procedural-knowledge-dependent tasks, although this prediction has yet to be tested (DeCaro et al., 2011).

What is stress?

As with pressure, stress is a multifaceted construct. Variability exists in individual responses to potential stressors (i. …

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