Abstract

Objective: This study aimed to compare attentional performance in a Virtual Reality Stroop Task (VRST) with and without task-irrelevant threatening stimuli. The VRST was used to assess the dual-competition model's hypothesis that low levels of threat may increase executive control. Method: 58 normal participants (mean age = 20.67, SD = 4.37) completed the VRST as part of a larger neuropsychological battery. The VRST presents the traditional Stroop tasks (color naming, word reading, and interference) on a virtual humvee windshield as the participant navigates a Middle Eastern city. The VRST also presents a complex interference condition in which Stroop stimuli are randomly presented on various windshield locations. Each condition takes place in both a safe zone and a threatening zone. Results: Response times in the threat conditions were faster than response times in the non-threat conditions for Interference, F(1, 57) = 32.26, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.361, and Complex Interference, F(1, 57) = 13.869, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.196, tasks. There was no significant difference between safe and threat zones for Color Naming or Word Reading conditions. Conclusion(s): In normal controls, low levels of threatening stimuli may increase performance on complex attentional tasks by alerting, focusing attention, and lowering response time. This effect may not occur in more simple attentional tasks with limited interference. A future direction of research is to study this same paradigm in individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For these individuals, threat may be perceived as amplified, and this may decrease, instead of increase, performance.