Literature Review Several researchers have investigated the relationshipbetween stress and executive functioning. Executive functioning is oftenmeasured in experiments by attention and memory recall performance.
Thehypothesis that stress negatively affects the executive functioning of collegeaged individuals has been heavily investigated. In a study using a between-subject design,Kofman, Meiran, Greenberg, Balas, and Cohen (2006) gathered 47 undergraduatestudents between the ages 18-29. The researchers examined the effects ofexamination stress on two executive function tasks in these students. Theyfound that in the 2 weeks prior to the exam students experienced increasedanxiety levels. Kofman et al. (2006) also found a significant interaction forstress and reaction time(RT) performance in task switching. These resultssuggested that when the students were under stress their task switchingperformances had the slowest RTs. The researchers also conducted Stroop testingas an executive functioning task and found that there were no significantfindings for the Stroop testing.
Students under stress during the Strooptesting had faster RTs but increased errors for incongruent stimuli. Similarly, researchers Petrac, Bedwell, Renk,Orem and Sims (2009) used a sample of 54 undergraduate students to examine therelationship between perceived environmental stress and executive functioningperformance. They were interested inhow self-reported environmental stress would affect divided attentionperformance. The results indicated that when the 54 participants reported anincrease in environmental stress there was a decrease in divided attentionperformance. The researchers also controlled for anxiety and found astatistically significant positive correlation between perceived stress and theauditory omission errors from the dual condition.
The findings suggest thatstudents’ perceived stress negatively affected the students’ ability toaccurately perform in both tasks.Incontrast to the relationship between stress and executive functioning seen inthe previous studies, Trammell and Clore (2014) hypothesized that”stress-induced arousal enhances long-term memory for experiencesassociated with arousing events”. They conducted three experiments to testtheir hypothesis.
In each experimental group Trammell and Clore usedundergraduate students whose mean age ranged from 18.47 and 18.97. Theimmersion technique of placing participants’ arms into ice water was used as astressor. The researchers introduced multiple forms of stimuli and varied thetime frames for participants being introduced to the stressor.
However, theirfindings still aligned with the studies discussed earlier. They found that inevery experiment induced stressors interfered with long term memory. Again,suggesting that stress has a negative effect on executive functioning. Whilemany studies suggested stress has a negative effect on executive functioningsome researchers have hypothesized that stress enhances cognitive functioning,and thus, conducted experiments to test that theory. Among these researcherswere Chajut and Algom in 2003. They gathered 160 undergraduate, freshman.psychology students for their study. The students were between 20 and 25 yearsold.
Chaut and Algom randomly placed the participants into two groups based onstress levels and conducted a series of tests. Multiple factors were used toinduced stress, such as, task difficulty, time pressure, and threat to the ego.The results indicated that the main effect of stress was highly significant inmultiple experiments. In experimental tasks involving colors and wordsparticipants performed better under high stress levels. These findings werecontradictory to the results found in the previous studies and opposed the ironic process theory, which says thatstress will inhibit cognitive functioning.Inaddition to Chajut and Algom’s experiment, more recently in 2014, researchersGathmann, Schulte, Maderwald, Pawlikowski, Starcke, Schäfer, and Brand exploredthe correlation between decision making and stress. During their experimentstress was defined by the Trier Social Stress Test and they used a parallel working memory task. Theresults indicated that while there was an increase in neural activity for participantsin the higher stress group there was no significant difference in performanceof tasks.
They found that acute stress with a parallel executivefunctioning task does not impair decision-making performance. According toGathmann et al. acute stress helps the brain switch from serial to parallel processing.Overall, research has repeatedlyindicated that a relationship is present between stress and cognitivefunctioning. Unfortunately, there are several concerns with the literature. Theseconcerns include, conflicting or opposing outcomes, and an insignificant amountof current (within a decade) literature.
The findings over the yearshave been contradicting. As seen above, some studies suggested that stressincreased cognitive functioning while others suggested a decrease in cognitivefunctioning. Many researchers noted that the relationship may vary depending onhow much stress is present. This creates major reliability and validityconcerns.Stressand stressors, like college students are not static. Things that collegiatelevel scholars deem very stressful one yeat, may not be deemed so stressful insubsequent years. Thus, major gaps in literature and research pose significantchallenges.
It was extremely difficultto find multiple articles that look at both variables with in the last 10years. Many articles from the last few years (5 years old or less) did focus onexecutive functioning but in relation to more severe forms of stress, such asPTSD or mental disorders. These types of stressors present a new set ofvariables to account for. Additionally, much of the research that did look atboth variables did not focus on the collegiate population. It is important tohave studies relating to the population being investigated.
The studies withother age ranges make it difficult to accurately access the relationship andcausation for college students, as age is another confounding variable.Finally, there were several studies looking at non-human subjects (rats). Whilethese studies can guide the design of future studies they cannot accuratelyrepresent the college-age, human population, thus, the findings may not beeffective in implementing ways to effectively utilize the data or outcome fromthose studies.