The skin conductance orienting response to semantic stimuli: Significance can be independent of arousal


  • Thanks are extended to Summeet Aggarwal for his assistance in data collection for Study 2 and to Lloyd Frie, instrumentation engineer, for his extensive and essential technical support of this research.

Address reprint requests to: Lilian Dindo, Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, W518 Seashore Hall, Iowa City, IA 52252, USA. E-mail:; or to Don C. Fowles, Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, E11 SSH, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA. E-mail:


The characteristics of stimuli that elicit skin conductance responses (SCRs) have been conceptualized in varied ways, with strong emphasis on the significance or arousing quality of stimuli. Our goal was to determine whether “significance” can be shown to have an effect on SCRs independent of “arousal,” using words as stimuli. Ratings of words indicated that significance is partially independent of arousal. In Study 1, SCRs from 43 participants during presentation of 20 significant, nonarousing words with a negative valence that were either depression related or potentially self-referent and 20 nonsignificant words matched on valence and arousal showed a main effect of significance. In Study 2 (N=44), significant, nonarousing words were sampled more broadly to examine the effects of self-reference and valence. Significance, rather than just negativity or self-reference, elicited SCRs independently of arousal. SCRs to significant words may reflect cognitive and attentional processes that, in turn, might prove useful for the assessment of the cognitive aspects of anxiety.