Date of Award

Fall 12-16-2016

Degree Type


Degree Name


Degree Program

Applied Developmental Psychology



Major Professor

Carl Weems

Second Advisor

Elliott Beaton

Third Advisor

Enrique Varela

Fourth Advisor

Monica Marsee

Fifth Advisor

Brandon Scott


Research has documented a tendency among youth to have biased interpretations of ambiguous information. For example, anxious youth are more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as negative or threatening (e.g., Cannon & Weems, 2010). Similarly, when interpreting social cues, aggressive youth exhibit hostile attribution biases more often than non-aggressive youth in response to ambiguous situations (e.g., Crick & Dodge, 1996). Research suggests that youth with anxiety and aggression exhibit differential physiological reactivity in response to threat. However, research has yet to examine the linkages amongst physiological reactivity to ambiguous situations, anxiety, and aggression in adolescents. The current study had several interrelated aims. Youths’ physiological responding (i.e., heart rate and skin conductance) to a series of animated vignettes depicting ambiguous social situations was examined. Anxiety, aggression, and hostile attributional bias (HAB) were also tested as predictors of differential physiological responding to the vignettes, as well as the interrelations between anxiety and HAB and aggression and HAB.

Eighty youth completed a physiological assessment in which they viewed a series of hypothetical situational vignettes while their heart rate and skin conductance were measured. Participants also completed questionnaires measuring symptoms of anxiety, aggression, and HAB. Results indicated that there was differential physiological responding to the vignettes such that participants’ heart rates showed a pattern of deceleration followed by acceleration across time. Physiological responses were predicted by HAB such that those with high HAB had higher heart rates and exhibited more pronounced deceleration and acceleration across time than those with low HAB. There was support for anxiety as a significant predictor of responses among those participants with higher levels of HAB such that heart rates remained elevated with very little deceleration across time, suggesting a pattern of physiological hyperarousal and blunted reactivity. However, aggression did not predict differential physiological responding to the ambiguous vignettes, nor did HAB moderate the association between aggression and physiological responding. These findings add to the literature by contributing to knowledge about physiological responding to ambiguous situations and associations between this link with anxiety, aggression, and HAB.


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