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Stress and Executive Control: Mediation and Moderation


Executive control functions (ECF) have captivated the scientific community for their role in predicting academic, professional, and health outcomes. ECF are also susceptible to the effects of stress and dominant theories point to the toxicity of stress, though there are notable inconsistencies. Inconsistencies in the literature might be because research has largely ignored the potential role of individual perceptions: The degree to which a stressor affects ECF may be related to the perception of a stressor as distressing and an individual’s beliefs. Three studies investigated these underlying mechanisms that may account for differences in the effects of stress on ECF.

In Study 1, I investigated the relationship between fictitious performance feedback (either positive or negative) and WM function in young adults while assessing a range of affect and self-belief constructs that might affect WM performance. Multiple regressions demonstrated that positive feedback resulted in better WM performance compared to negative feedback. Furthermore, for participants reactive to feedback, recent


experiences of stress negatively impacted their performance regardless of feedback type. These findings intimate the relationship between stress and WM but could not address whether this relationship might be explained by perceptions of distress.

In Study 2, I examined chronic stress on later inhibitory control in adolescents from a predominantly low-income background. Linear regression failed to detect a relationship between chronic stress and cognitive function. However, the relationship between chronic stress and perceived distress was statistically significant.

To examine the relationship between chronic stress and perceived distress, the role of individual moderators were included in Study 3. Self-esteem and optimism were found to moderate this relationship: High self-esteem and low optimism attenuated the negative effects of chronic stress on perceived distress, whereas low self-esteem acerbated these effects. Though findings from Study 2 failed to detect a relationship between ECF and chronic stress, the relationship between chronic stress and perceived distress was highlighted, then further explored in Study 3.

Collectively, the data obtained from these three complementary strands of work examine how stress impacts ECF, whether perceived distress accounts for this relationship, and to what extent individual beliefs moderate aspects of this relationship.

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