Not all stress is created equal: Acute, not ambient stress, impairs learning in high schizotypes

Emma E. Walter*, Francesca M. Fernandez, Emma Barkus

*Corresponding author for this work

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Learning from feedback is essential for daily functioning, with factors that impact learning having implications for healthy and clinical populations. Reinforcement learning appears impaired across the psychosis continuum, with deficits reported in patients with psychotic disorders as well as high schizotypes from the general population. Stress can impair learning, and sensitivity to stress is present along the psychosis continuum. The aim of the present study was to understand if stress impairs reinforcement learning in those at the lower end of the psychosis continuum. We investigated both naturalistic stress in everyday life using daily hassles (Study 1: n = 70; 31% male, M age = 22.67 years) and acute psychosocial stress using the Trier Social Stress Test (Study 2: n = 57; 32% male, M age = 22.43 years). In the presence of naturalistic stress, learning did not differ across schizotypes. However, under acute psychosocial stress, high schizotypes experienced impaired learning. Our results suggest trail-and-error learning is robust to the ebbs and flows of everyday stress for high schizotypes; however, acute stress is associated with decrements in learning. This indicates that the magnitude of stressors should be considered when designing cognitive and functional interventions for those along the psychosis continuum.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)179-193
Number of pages15
JournalPsyCh Journal
Issue number2
Early online date29 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022
Externally publishedYes


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