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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Field-dependence-independence, anxiety and stress : relation to performance on a cognitive-perceptual task Britain, Susan Dorothy


The major purpose of this study was to explore the moderating roles played "by cognitive style and anxiety on the effects which stressful events have on cognitive performance, This .was attempted by experimentally testing certain hypotheses derived from a cognitive-attentional analysis of the relationship "between cognitive styles, anxiety and performance. An integration of certain theoretical notions of Witkin (1965), Wachtel (1968) and Spence and Spence (1966) led to the position that predictions of the effects of stress on complex problem solving could be made effectively if cognitive styles (field-dependence — FD , field-independence —Fl) were used as indicators of the effectiveness of habits activated during stress. It was argued that an individual's cognitive style was more influential than his level of anxiety in biasing the responses activated during stress. The cognitive styles of field-dependence and field-independence were related to activation of dominant perceptual-defensive habits during stress. FI perceptual-defensive habits were characterized as compatible with behaviors involved in the solution of certain complex tasks. In contrast. FD perceptual-defensive habits were characterized as incompatible with adequate performance on these tasks. The different perceptual-defensive habits were related to different distributions of attention to task-relevant or irrelevant stimuli during stress. It was hypothesized that activation of these dominant habit patterns would lead to the exaggeration of habits associated with cognitive styles. It was expected that activation of FI habits would result in improved performance on a measure of field-independence; activation of FD habits would result in deteriorated performance. In neutral conditions, less differentiation of performance should result since perceptual-defensive habits would not be activated. A second purpose of this study was to obtain an index of differentiation between FD and FI individuals independent of performance measures but related to the attentional level of analysis described for FI and FD habit patterns. An integration of Witkin's (1965) theory of field-dependence-independence (FDl) and Lacey's (1967) hypothesis about the relationship between cardiac activity and orientation to the environment provided the basis for several predictions. It was hypothesized that FI individuals would show cardiac deceleration during exposure to threatening visual stimuli reflecting an attitude of environmental acceptance. In contrast, it was predicted that FD individuals would show cardiac acceleration, reflecting rejection of the same stimuli in the environment. Degree of field-independence and level of anxiety were determined for female university student volunteers with the Hidden Figures Test, the Rod-Frame Test and the Activity Preference Questionnaire. High anxious.-FI subjects (Ss), low anxious -FI Ss, high anxious-FD Ss and low anxious-FD Ss comprised four experimental groups. In order to determine the effect of the activation of FD and FI perceptual-defensive habits during stress, half of each group was given a modified test of FDI in stressful, half in neutral conditions. The stress condition was defined by the interjection of noxious slides of murder victims in-between slides of items of the test of FDI, The neutral condition was defined by interjection of neutral slides. The findings generally supported the hypotheses about performance and cardiac activity. Although FI Ss tended to perform at a higher level, FI and FD Ss did not differ significantly from each other in performance or in cardiac activity in the neutral condition. Only under the stressful condition was there any significant difference between FI and FD Ss in either performance or cardiac activity. The tendency for FD performance to deteriorate while FI performance improved on complex items significantly exaggerated the differences in their performances. There was also a marked difference in performance variability. First, FD Ss were more, variable in both conditions. Second, the variance in the performance of FI Ss decreased during stress while that of FD Ss did not. Level of anxiety alone affected neither average speed nor variability of performance. The major difference in cardiac response to the task was the occurrence of greater acceleration to simple items for FD Ss. Cardiac response to noxious slides was different for FD and FI Ss and for high and low anxious Ss, High levels of anxiety were related to initial acceleration to noxious slides while low levels were related to initial deceleration. Field-dependence was related to continued acceleration, field-independence, to continued deceleration. It was concluded that the differences in cardiac activity during stress supported both Lacey's notion of the relationship between cardiac activity and environmental orientation and Witkin's theory about the defensive habits of FD and FI individuals. Further, it was concluded that the increased performance differences between FD and FI Ss during stress supported the argument that the cognitive styles of field-dependence and field-independence are exaggerated by the activation of dominant habit patterns during stress.

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