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Does Intolerance of Uncertainty Predict Anticipatory Startle Responses to Uncertain Threat?

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journal contribution
posted on 09.03.2012, 00:00 by Brady D. Nelson, Stewart A. Shankman
Intolerance of uncertainty (IU) has been proposed to be an important maintaining factor in several anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social phobia. While IU has been shown to predict subjective ratings and decision-making during uncertain/ambiguous situations, few studies have examined whether IU also predicts emotional responding to uncertain threat. The present study examined whether IU predicted aversive responding (startle and subjective ratings) during the anticipation of temporally uncertain shocks. Sixty-nine participants completed three experimental conditions during which they received: no shocks, temporally certain/predictable shocks, and temporally uncertain shocks. Results indicated that IU was negatively associated with startle during the uncertain threat condition in that those with higher IU had a smaller startle response. IU was also only related to startle during the uncertain (and not the certain/predictable) threat condition, suggesting that it was not predictive of general aversive responding, but specific to responses to uncertain aversiveness. Perceived control over anxiety-related events mediated the relation between IU and startle to uncertain threat, such that high IU led to lowered perceived control, which in turn led to a smaller startle response. We discuss several potential explanations for these findings, including the inhibitory qualities of IU. Overall, our results suggest IU is associated with attenuated aversive responding to uncertain threat.


This project was funded by National Institute of Mental Health Grant R21MH080689 awarded to Stewart A. Shankman.


Publisher Statement

NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, Vol. 81, Issue 2, May 25, 2011. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2011.05.003. The original publication is available at







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