"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.
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.