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The differential impacts of distraction and acceptance on attentional focus, anxious affect, and executive control under high- and lo-threat circumstances

Norman, Paul (2013) The differential impacts of distraction and acceptance on attentional focus, anxious affect, and executive control under high- and lo-threat circumstances. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Previous research into the use of strategies to regulate affect has mostly focused on how effective particular strategies are in reducing unpleasant affect. More recently affect regulation strategies have been recognised as effortful, conscious processes, that may pose a cost to subsequent executive control. The aim of this thesis was to further our understanding of what processes may be involved in making affect regulation strategies effective in reducing anxious affect and in preserving the capacity to demonstrate executive control. The present research compared the effects of the cognitive affect regulation strategies, distraction and acceptance, under high- and low-threat conditions on (1) attentional focus and engagement in rumination, worry and suppression, (2) affect, and (3) subsequent executive control. University student participants (N = 180) were randomly allocated to one of the six experimental conditions in a 2 (threat) X 3 (regulation strategy: distraction, acceptance, mind-wandering control) design. Electrocardiogram (ECG) responses were recorded throughout the experiment. Reported affect was measured following each experimental phase. Following baseline, participants were told of an upcoming task of high- or low-threat value and were then directed to undertake a regulation strategy. Subsequently, participants completed two executive control tasks: response inhibition and working memory. Participants then undertook their allocated threat-manipulation task followed by a recovery period when they reported on their attentional focus and engagement in worry, rumination and suppression during regulation.

The results indicated that participants spontaneously initiated regulatory attempts (shown by the mind-wandering control conditions) to direct attentional focus away from threats and feelings, equally in both high- and low-threat levels. Distraction resulted in less reported attentional diversion from threats relative to mind-wandering. Acceptance facilitated attention to threat-related thoughts relative to mind-wandering and towards affect relative to distraction. Worry, rumination and suppression increased in high-threat circumstances but did not differ between regulatory conditions. Regulatory conditions that resulted in more attention to threats (i.e., distraction and acceptance) also showed increased reported affect and physiological arousal, although acceptance did lead to reduced arousal during sustained regulation in high-threat circumstances. Regulation was shown to moderate the impact of threat on response inhibition but not working memory. Distraction impaired inhibitory ability under both high- and low-threat. Acceptance preserved executive control in high-threat circumstances, across both executive control measures. However, under low-threat, acceptance impaired prepotent response inhibition, but had no impact on working memory. Increased threat led to impairments to working memory when averaged across all regulatory conditions. Heart rate was negatively related to executive control but did not account for the effects of threat or regulation on executive control. These findings suggested that increased affect did not necessarily equate to impaired executive control. Rather, the findings suggested that the affect regulation strategies of distraction and acceptance involve processes that, independent of affect, can either preserve or impair the ability to demonstrate executive control.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Psychology and Exercise Science
Supervisor(s): Davis, Helen and Prince, Jon
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