Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


Anxiety and Cognitive Performance: A Test of Predictions Made by Cognitive Interference Theory and Attentional Control Theory

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

William O'Brien, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Margaret Brooks, Ph.D. (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Robert Carels, Ph.D. (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Steve Jex, Ph.D. (Committee Member)


A well-established link between anxiety and impaired cognitive performance exists. Researchers have put forth several theories to explain the mechanisms of this relationship. Two such explanations are Cognitive Interference Theory (CIT) and Attentional Control Theory(ACT). The present study used a sample of 97 undergraduate students to test hypotheses made by both theories. Participants completed a demographic questionnaire and measures of state anxiety, evaluation anxiety, cognitive interference, and attentional control. They were randomly assigned to either an anxiety or a non-anxiety instruction condition and were then administered various cognitive tasks, which included measures of phonological loop, central executive, and visuospatial sketchpad functioning. The central executive tasks completed included measures of inhibition, switching, and updating. Results indicate that many CIT hypotheses were supported. Most notably, those receiving anxiety-inducing instructions experienced greater levels of evaluation anxiety and made more negative self-statements on a measure of cognitive interference. The anxiety condition was also associated with worse performance on measures of phonological loop and central executive, but not visuospatial sketchpad, functioning. Negative self-statements mediated the relationship between anxiety condition and performance on central executive tasks, accounting for approximately 23% of the variance in the relationship. Negative self-statements did not mediate the relationship between anxiety condition and phonological loop functioning, and accounted for very little of the variance in the relationship. Partial support was found for ACT. Specifically, measures of attentional control did not predict performance on central executive tasks. This held true for both measures of task effectiveness (errors made on the tasks) and task efficiency (time taken to complete tasks). The results were interpreted within both the CIT and ACT contexts. Implications for both models and future research are discussed.