Anxiety-related threat bias in recognition memory: the moderating effect of list composition and semantic-similarity effects

Corey N. White, Roger Ratcliff, Michael W. Vasey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Individuals with high anxiety show bias for threatening information, but it is unclear whether this bias affects memory. Recognition memory studies have shown biases for recognising and rejecting threatening items in anxiety, prompting the need to identify moderating factors of this effect. This study focuses on the role of semantic similarity: the use of many semantically related threatening words could increase familiarity for those items and obscure anxiety-related differences in memory. To test this, two recognition memory experiments varied the proportion of threatening words in lists to manipulate the semantic-similarity effects. When similarity effects were reduced, participants with high trait anxiety were biased to respond “new” to threatening words, whereas when similarity effects were strong there was no effect of anxiety on memory bias. Analysis of the data with the drift diffusion model showed that the bias was due to differences in processing of the threatening stimuli rather than a simple response bias. These data suggest that the semantic similarity of the threatening words significantly affects the presence or absence of anxiety-related threat bias in recognition memory. The results indicate that trait anxiety is associated with a bias to decide that threatening stimuli were not previously studied, but only when semantic-similarity effects are controlled. Implications for theories of anxiety and future studies in this domain are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1446-1460
Number of pages15
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 16 2016


  • Trait anxiety
  • diffusion model
  • recognition memory
  • threat bias

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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