A Sure Sign of Anxiety

Do you assume the worse? A quick test to determine whether you're too anxious.

By PT Staff, published on May 1, 1995 - last reviewed on August 27, 2012

"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.

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