A Sure Sign of Anxiety

"The doctor examined little Emily's growth." As you read this sentence, did you wonder about Emily's height? Or were you concerned that she had cancer? Your answer may depend on your anxiety level.

Many psychologists believe that the perpetually anxious are more likely to interpret an ambiguous statement in a threatening way. Two University of Western Australia psychologists devised a way to test the idea. They had subjects read sentences that appeared sequentially on a computer screen. After seeing and understanding each sentence, subjects pressed a button to blank the screen and display a new, related sentence.

The volunteers thought the study was a test of text comprehension. But investigators were really measuring the interval between button pushes. They reasoned that if a subject interpreted an ambiguous sentence in a threatening way, the follow-up sentence would make less sense. The student, presumably, would linger while trying to make sense of the apparent non sequitur.

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For example, when the sentence at top was followed by "her height had changed little since her last visit,"' subjects who initially assumed that the doctor was wielding a tape measure would promptly move on. But those who assumed Emily had cancer would hesitate, puzzled by the sudden reference to her height.

The researchers found that anxious subjects indeed waited longer before pushing the button. Although the difference between the groups was small—only a few tenths of a second—the implications are considerable. Colin MacLeod, Ph.D., and Ilan Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., note that we constantly interpret others' words and actions. A half-smile, after all, can indicate mild amusement—or derision. The anxious, it seems, tend to assume the worst, and that can only make them more anxious.

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