Does intolerance of uncertainty predict anticipatory startle responses to uncertain threat?

Brady D. Nelson*, Stewart A Shankman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Intolerance of uncertainty (IU) has been proposed to be an important maintaining factor in several anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social phobia. While IU has been shown to predict subjective ratings and decision-making during uncertain/ambiguous situations, few studies have examined whether IU also predicts emotional responding to uncertain threat. The present study examined whether IU predicted aversive responding (startle and subjective ratings) during the anticipation of temporally uncertain shocks. Sixty-nine participants completed three experimental conditions during which they received: no shocks, temporally certain/predictable shocks, and temporally uncertain shocks. Results indicated that IU was negatively associated with startle during the uncertain threat condition in that those with higher IU had a smaller startle response. IU was also only related to startle during the uncertain (and not the certain/predictable) threat condition, suggesting that it was not predictive of general aversive responding, but specific to responses to uncertain aversiveness. Perceived control over anxiety-related events mediated the relation between IU and startle to uncertain threat, such that high IU led to lowered perceived control, which in turn led to a smaller startle response. We discuss several potential explanations for these findings, including the inhibitory qualities of IU. Overall, our results suggest that IU is associated with attenuated aversive responding to uncertain threat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)107-115
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2011


  • Anxiety
  • Controllability
  • Emotion
  • Intolerance of uncertainty
  • Startle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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