Proactive and Reactive Control in Emotional States: an Investigation of Fear using the AX-Continuous Performance Task in Virtual Reality
Fear is a primitive and powerful emotion which affects us in many ways. Exactly how it may influence us however, particularly our ability to effectively pursue goals, is less well understood. Our ability to effectively pursue goals is directed by cognitive control and is proposed to be comprised of proactive and reactive mechanisms (Braver, 2012; Braver et al., 2009). Proactive control relies on the active and sustained maintenance of goals, thereby reducing conflict ahead of time, but also heavily consuming resources. Reactive control acts more transiently, re-activating goals in response to stimuli and events within the environment and is thus less effective, but also less resource intensive. To investigate the influence of fear on proactive and reactive mechanisms, I conducted two studies in which participants performed the AX-Continuous Performance Test (AX-CPT) while exposed to extreme heights in an ecologically valid virtual reality scene. If fear results in the reallocation of cognitive resources towards the perceived threat, thereby reducing overall cognitive resources (Pessoa, 2009; Curci et al., 2013; Klein et al., 2001; Hermans et al., 2014), there may be one of two influences on proactive and reactive mechanisms. First, there may be a decreased use of proactive control, and an increased use of reactive control, as proactive control is more resource heavy. Alternatively, there may be a reduction in both modes of control, as both necessitate cognitive resources. Results from an initial pilot study demonstrated that the emotion induction procedure was successful, and that the AX-CPT was successfully implemented in VR. Results from the main study indicated an increased use of reactive as well as proactive control under threat, suggesting that threat impairs the ability to flexibly use and choose between cognitive control modes, thereby impairing cognitive control specifically in situations of conflict where it is necessary. Results further support the notion that proactive and reactive mechanisms are independent.