An Unsteady State

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Science  02 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5740, pp. 1459
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5740.1459b

Neuroticism has often been linked with instability, manifest as a tendency to worry excess-ively, to respond to similar situations in a variable fashion, or to cope poorly when emotionally stressed. What might be the neural mechanisms underlying the expression of this trait, and would they affect high- or low-level cognitive processes? Previous studies have begun to address the extent of trial-to-trial variation in neuronal firing rates and patterns, as well as the behavioral consequences of that variability.

Robinson and Tamir have used a nested series of reaction time tasks—requiring (i) stimulus detection, (ii) stimulus detection and discrimination or (iii) stimulus detection and discrimination and response selection—and find that mean reaction time increases, as expected, over this series. In contrast, self-reported neuro-ticism did not correlate with mean reaction time but did correlate with the standard deviation of reaction time across all three tasks. They suggest that individuals scoring high on neuroticism, even though motivated or conscientious, may suffer from unreliable or inefficient low-level cognitive processing, which contributes to less stable and successful behavior. — GJC

J. Pers. Soc. Psych. 89, 107 (2005).

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