The interactive effects of different facets of threat uncertainty and cognitive load in shaping fear and anxiety responses

Deachul Seo, Nicholas L. Balderston, Howard Berenbaum, Juyoen Hur

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A large body of research indicates that exaggerated response to uncertainty of a future threat is at the core of anxiety and related disorders, underscoring the need for a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms. Although behavioral and neuroimaging studies have suggested a close relationship between uncertainty responses and cognitive control, little is known about what elements of uncertainty are more or less vulnerable to cognitive modulation in shaping aversive responses. Leveraging a novel paradigm, an n-back working memory task embedded within a modified threat-of-shock paradigm, we examined how the influences of different facets of uncertainty (i.e., occurrence and timing) on psychophysiological responses were modulated by cognitive load. Psychophysiological responses were assessed using the acoustic startle reflex. Replicating prior work, the effects of cognitive load and temporal unpredictability of threat on startle responses were evident. The effect of occurrence unpredictability appears to depend on other factors. Under low cognitive load, startle response was potentiated when both the occurrence and the timing of threat were predictable. Under high cognitive load, startle response was significantly reduced, especially when a threat context involves uncertainty in both temporal and probability domains. These observations provide a framework for refining the model of fear and anxiety and for understanding the etiology of psychological disorders characterized by maladaptive uncertainty responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14404
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • anxiety
  • cognitive load
  • fear
  • startle response
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Physiology


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