Stress and selective attention: The interplay of mood, cortisol levels, and emotional information processing


Address requests for reprints to: Mark A. Ellenbogen, Department de Psychologie, Université de Montreal, C.P. 6128, Succursale Centre-ville, Montréal, Québec, H3C 3J7, Canada. E-mail:


The effects of a stressful challenge on the processing of emotional words were examined in college students. Stress induction was achieved using a competitive computer task, where the individual either repeatedly lost or won against a confederate. Mood, attention, and cortisol were recorded during the study. There were four findings: (1) Participants in the negative stressor condition were faster to shift attention away from negative words than positive or neutral words; (2) attentional shifts away from negative words were associated with stress-induced mood lowering; (3) participants in the negative stress condition with elevated scores on the Beck Depression Inventory were slow to disengage attention from all stimuli; and (4) elevated depression scores were associated with lower cortisol change from baseline during the experimental phase, and with higher cortisol levels during the recovery phase. These findings point to information-processing strategies as a means to regulate emotion, and to atypical features of cognitive and adrenocortical function that may serve as putative risk markers of depression.