Although prior research has characterized stress system reactivity (i.e. hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, HPAA; autonomic nervous system, ANS) in children, it has yet to examine the extent to which biological reactivity predicts concurrent goal-directed behavior. Here, we employed a stressor paradigm that allowed concurrent assessment of both stress system reactivity and performance on a speeded-response task to investigate the links between biological reactivity and cognitive function under stress. We further investigated gender as a moderator given previous research suggesting that the ANS may be particularly predictive of behavior in males due to gender differences in socialization. In a sociodemographically diverse sample of young children (N = 58, M age = 5.38 yrs; 44% male), individual differences in sociodemographic covariates (age, household income), HPAA (i.e. cortisol), and ANS (i.e. respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA, indexing the parasympathetic branch; pre-ejection period, PEP, indexing the sympathetic branch) function were assessed as predictors of cognitive performance under stress. We hypothesized that higher income, older age, and greater cortisol reactivity would be associated with better performance overall, and flexible ANS responsivity (i.e. RSA withdrawal, PEP shortening) would be predictive of performance for males. Overall, females performed better than males. Two-group SEM analyses suggest that, for males, greater RSA withdrawal to the stressor was associated with better performance, while for females, older age, higher income, and greater cortisol reactivity were associated with better performance. Results highlight the relevance of stress system reactivity to cognitive performance under stress. Future research is needed to further elucidate for whom and in what situations biological reactivity predicts goal-directed behavior.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
- Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
- Psychiatry and Mental health
- Behavioral Neuroscience