In this study by Sari and colleagues, they found that active worrying impairs working memory capacity.
The researchers found that levels of active worry mediated, or helped explain, the relationship between condition (worry or control) and changes in working memory capacity, indicating that worrying interfered with improvements in working memory capacity. Furthermore, the time participants spent thinking about their personal topic in the worry condition was also related to smaller improvements in working memory capacity. They stated that their results are among the first to demonstrate a direct effect of active worrying on a measure of working memory capacity, as their results showed that worrying likely depletes working memory resources needed for efficient task performance. They suggest that their findings have direct implications for theories of anxiety and worry that attempt to explain how anxiety-related effects impair performance.
Berna A. Sari, Ernst H. W. Koster and Nazanin Derakshan
Ghent University, Belgium and Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom
The researchers wanted to assess how active worrying causally influenced working memory capacity. They predicted that increased worrying would be related to impaired working memory capacity. Specifically, they expected reductions or limited improvements in working memory capacity after, compared to before, a worry manipulation as compared to participants’ working memory capacity after a control manipulation.
The researchers noted that no study had directly examined the impact of active worrying on working memory capacity in an unselected population (a sample of participants recruited from the general population without requiring a specific condition, diagnosis, or symptom). They emphasised that this research question was key in gaining a better understanding of how anxiety-related impairments on cognitive performance emerge in different situations, such as when someone is taking exams, where the efficient regulation of attentional control is needed.
64 participants, randomised to a “Worry” (N = 32) or “Control” (N = 32) condition, completed questionnaires and a Change Detection task, where participants were instructed to indicate whether the orientation of one of the red rectangles they had previously memorised had changed or not, both before and after being asked to think of a personally relevant future event. In the worry condition participants focused on a personal concern or a worrisome event, whereas the control condition participants focused on a positive event.
ScientiFix tip: As the authors note, given the high correlation between worry and anxiety, they could not conclude that the effect observed on working memory capacity is specific to worry. Other mechanisms such as heightened arousal or feelings of anxiety may also cause impairments in working memory capacity. Therefore, future studies are needed to determine whether there is a specific effect of memory on working memory, or if other features of anxiety also impact working memory performance. Finally, as in other studies, the sample size for this study was rather small, suggesting the study may have been underpowered (this was not assessed by the researchers). Similarly, despite testing participants from two different locations (Belgium and United Kingdom), the sample was too small to test for any possible differences between sites.