Ashley, V., & Swick, D. (2019). Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 136. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00136
In the presence of threatening stimuli, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can manifest as hypervigilance for threat and disrupted attentional control. PTSD patients have shown exaggerated interference effects on tasks using trauma-related or threat stimuli. In studies of PTSD, faces with negative expressions are often used as threat stimuli, yet angry and fearful facial expressions may elicit different responses. The modified Eriksen flanker task, or the emotional face flanker, has been used to examine response interference. We compared 23 PTSD patients and 23 military controls on an emotional face flanker task using angry, fearful and neutral expressions. Participants identified the emotion of a central target face flanked by faces with either congruent or incongruent emotions. As expected, both groups showed slower reaction times (RTs) and decreased accuracy on emotional target faces, relative to neutral. Unexpectedly, both groups showed nearly identical interference effects on fearful and neutral target trials. However, post hoc testing suggested that PTSD patients showed faster RTs than controls on congruent angry faces (target and flanker faces both angry) relative to incongruent, although this finding should be interpreted with caution. This possible RT facilitation effect with angry, but not fearful faces, also correlated positively with self-report measures of PTSD symptoms. These results suggest that PTSD patients may be more vigilant for, or primed to respond to, the appearance of angry faces, relative to fearful, but further study is needed.