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Personality and Individual Differences 35 (2003) 843861

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Coping styles and threat processing


Pedro Averoa, Kimberly M. Coraceb, Norman S. Endlerb,*, Manuel G. Calvoa
a
University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain
Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3

Received 11 April 2002; received in revised form 19 July 2002; accepted 10 September 2002

Abstract
In three dierent experiments we examined the role of coping styles (task-oriented, emotion-oriented,
and avoidance coping) in attention, interpretation, and memory for threat-related information. Attentional
bias was assessed by an emotional Stroop word color-naming task; interpretive bias, by an on-line inference processing task during the reading of sentences; and explicit memory bias, by sensitivity (d 0 ) and
response criterion () scores in a word recognition test. Multiple regression analyses revealed, rst, that, a
task-oriented coping style was associated with facilitation in color-naming of threat-related words, whereas
an avoidance-oriented coping style was associated with interference, which suggests selective attention to
threatening information. Second, an emotion-oriented coping style was associated with facilitation of
interpretive inferences related to threatening outcomes of ambiguous situations; in contrast, an avoidance
coping style was associated with facilitation of non-threat inferences. And, third, there were biases in the
recognition of presented and non-presented physical-threat information, with an avoidance style being
related to a cautious response criterion, and emotion coping being related to a risky response criterion.
These results suggest that avoidance coping is involved in initial attention to threat, followed by late inhibition of threat elaboration and memory; in contrast, emotion coping is involved in delayed further threat
elaboration and also reconstruction of non-presented threat-related information.
# 2002 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Coping; Threat; Attentional bias; Interpretive bias; Memory bias

1. Introduction
Coping refers to an individuals eorts to regulate stressful situations (Lazarus & Folkman,
1984). Research suggests that coping styles (e.g. task-oriented, emotion-oriented, and avoidance)
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-416-736-2100; fax: +1-416-736-5814.
E-mail address: nendler@yorku.ca (N.S. Endler).
0191-8869/03/$ - see front matter # 2002 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S0191-8869(02)00287-8

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play an important role in the way that individuals respond to stressful situations and negative life
events (Endler & Parker, 1990, 1999; Lazarus, 1993; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; McCrae & Costa,
1986). Coping styles are often used to mediate between antecedent stressful events and such consequences as anxiety, depression, psychological distress, and somatic complaints (Billings & Moos,
1981; Coyne, Aldwin, & Lazarus, 1981; Endler & Parker, 1990, 1999; Parker & Endler, 1992).
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) developed a process-oriented coping model that dierentiated
between two types of coping: (1) problem-focused coping responses and (2) emotion-focused
coping responses. Problem-focused coping responses involve attempts to alter the personenvironment relationship. For example, in some situations one might create a plan to eliminate a
stressor. Emotion-focused coping responses involve attempts to regulate emotional distress. One
might engage in cognitive restructuring to redene his/her situation in order to regulate emotional
distress. Research has recently identied a third coping style, avoidance coping (Endler & Parker,
1990, 1999), which involves activities and cognitive changes aimed at avoiding the stressful
situation (Endler & Parker, 1999, p. 35).
The dierent models of coping could be classied as either intra-individual approaches or
inter-individual approaches (Endler & Parker, 1999; Folkman, Lazarus, Dunkel-Schetter,
DeLongis, & Gruen, 1986). When the intra-individual approach is employed, behaviors and
cognitions for the same person are analyzed across a variety of situations. This approach focuses on the process of coping by examining how coping styles change in response to specic types
of stressors. In contrast, the inter-individual approach to coping utilizes coping scores of one
individual to represent a stable index of the individuals coping styles, and compares that persons responses with those of others (Endler and Parker, 1999; Fleishman, 1984). This approach
focuses on the assessment of inter-individual dierences. Therefore, for the present study, it is
more appropriate to use inter-individual coping measure designed to assess an individuals dispositional coping styles because of this studys focus on between individual dierences rather
than within individual dierences.
1.1. Coping styles
Research has demonstrated three main coping styles people utilize when encountering a stressful situation: (1) Task-oriented, (2) Emotion-oriented, and (3) Avoidance-oriented. These coping
styles can be assessed with the Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations (CISS; Endler & Parker,
1999).
If the situation was appraised as being changeable, task-oriented styles would be more adaptive
(reduce depression and anxiety), yet emotion-oriented styles would be more adaptive if the
situation was appraised as unchangeable (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980; Lazarus, 1966; Lazarus &
Folkman, 1984). Research has demonstrated that high levels of perceived control is related to
higher levels of task-oriented coping and lower levels of state anxiety than low levels of perceived
control (Endler, Macrodimistris, & Kocovski, 2000; Endler, Speer, Johnson, & Flett, 2000).
Although emotion-oriented coping is aimed at reducing stress, this response can actually increase
stress and produce negative outcomes (increased anxiety and depression) in the long term
(Lazarus, 1993; Endler & Parker, 1990). Thus, this coping response is adaptive only as an
immediate coping strategy, and for stressors that are appraised as uncontrollable. Avoidance
coping is thought to be maladaptive in the long-term for controllable situations, but adaptive in

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the short-term for uncontrollable situations. Research suggests that although avoidance coping
can be more adaptive than emotion-focused coping, task-oriented coping is more adaptive than
either avoidance or emotion-focused coping (Parker & Endler, 1992).
1.2. Coping styles and attention
There is extensive evidence which indicates that most aective disorders (e.g. social phobia,
anxiety, and panic) are associated with an attentional bias toward selection of stimuli related
to the disorder (Wells & Matthews, 1994). For example, social phobia patients have an
attentional bias towards socially threatening stimuli (Becker, Rinck, Margraf, & Roth, 2001;
Hope, Rapee, Heimberg, & Dombeck, 1990; Mattia, Heimberg, & Hope, 1993). Thus,
research demonstrates that anxious participants tend to allocate more attention to threatening than to non-threatening information (Eysenck, 1992). However, coping research demonstrates that only a subset of anxious participants show this tendency to attend to threat-related
stimuli. When encountering threatening situations, some individuals appear to seek knowledge
about the stressor (e.g. sensitizers or monitors) while others appear to avoid threat-related stimuli
(e.g. avoiders or repressors or blunters). This implies that anxious subjects responses to threatening situations may depend on dispositional coping styles (De Jongh, Ter Horst, Muris, &
Merckerlbach, 1995).
Most of the research on attentional biases and coping styles has been investigated with the
emotional Stroop task (Williams, Matthews, & MacLeod, 1996). In this task, participants are
required to name the ink colors of a list of words which vary in emotional signicance, ignoring
the semantic content of the word. When a word has high emotional signicance (e.g. cancer for
physical threats), it becomes more dicult to suppress the words meaning and name the ink
color, creating increased response times.
Recent research has suggested that individuals who possess a repressive coping style (low
trait anxiety, high defensiveness) exhibit an avoidant processing style (Myers & McKenna,
1996). Research shows repressors avert their attention from threatening words (during
attention tasks) and are more ecient in inhibiting threatening information. Repressors
maintain an attentional focus away from information they want to ignore. They avoid
processing of unwanted information (de Ruiter & Brosschot, 1994; Fox, 1993, 1994;
Myers & McKenna, 1996). However, the results using the emotional Stroop task are more
ambiguous. That is, in some research repressors have slower latency times when color-naming emotionally laden words as compared to neutral words (Dawkins & Furnham, 1989; de
Ruiter & Brosschot, 1994; Myers & McKenna, 1996). Other research (Kocovski, 2001) has
shown that instrumental coping (task-oriented coping style) is negatively correlated with
womens reaction times on the emotional Stroop task. That is, women high in social evaluation anxiety who had longer reaction times were found to use instrumental coping strategies to a lesser extent.
Thus, one aim of the present study was to investigate the role of dispositional coping styles in
attentional bias towards threat-related information using the emotional Stroop task (see Experiment 1). This research sought to uncover the coping styles that are associated with longer colornaming times for threat-related words (compared with neutral words), indicating cognitive interference.

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1.3. Coping styles and interpretive bias


Interpretive bias, or the tendency to interpret ambiguous information in a threatening manner,
has been consistently found among high trait-anxious individuals (not low trait-anxious individuals) with ambiguous words and sentences, particularly in latter stages of cognitive processing
(Calvo & Eysenck, 2000). Eysenck (1997) posits that repressors minimize the threatfulness of
cues and consistently interpret ambiguous cues in a non-threatening manner (termed opposite
interpretive bias). Although there is a paucity of research in this area, some studies have shown
that repressors have an opposite interpretive bias (Calvo & Eysenck, 2000; Derakshan &
Eysenck, 1997; Eysenck & Derakshan, 1997). In a recent study, Calvo and Eysenck (2000)
examined the time course of an interpretive bias toward processing threat-related cues in repressive copers. The studys stimuli included sentences that described potentially threatening situations or non-threatening situations from which the participant could predict either a threat or a
non-threat outcome. Thus, the outcome that could be predicted was ambiguous. Results indicated
that repressors showed highly signicant facilitation for threatening inferences with a delay of 550
ms, but this bias disappeared when there was a 1050 ms delay. These ndings indicated that early
processing of threat was facilitated by repression coping and later processing of threat was inhibited by repression coping. That is, repressors have an initial bias towards processing threatening
information which is followed by an avoidance of processing threatening information.
Thus, a second goal of this study was to extend this research domain and examine the role of
coping styles in interpretive bias using an on-line inference task during sentence reading (see
Experiment 2). This study sought to investigate which coping styles facilitate or inhibit the
inference processing of threat-related events and which styles facilitate or inhibit non-threat
inferences.
1.4. Coping styles and memory bias
The evidence for the relationship between coping and memory bias (selective memory for
threat-related information) is equivocal. Although, Eysenck (1997) purports that repressors
would have an opposite memory bias, research does not consistently demonstrate this. On the
one hand, research indicates that repressive copers do not remember negative events as well as
controls (Davis, 1990; Myers & Brewin, 1995; Newman & Hedberg, 1999). Evidence has been
found for a memory bias away from negative information for repressors in studies which focus on
autobiographical memory and memory for more realistic situations (Boden & Baumeister, 1997;
Cutler, Larsen & Bunce, 1996; Krahe, 1999; Myers & Brewin, 1994, 1995; Newman & Hedberg,
1999)
However, more recent research (Oldenburg, Lundh, & Kivisto, 2002) nds that there is no
opposite memory bias among repressors. Oldenburg et al. (2002) found no association between
repressive coping style and explicit or implicit memory bias. Thus, not lending support for
Eysencks (1997) hypothesis of an opposite cognitive bias in repressors. Other research has also
failed to nd support for an association between repressive coping style and memory bias in
experimental studies with threatening words (Brosschot, de Ruiter, & Kindt, 1999a).
Thus, the nal goal of the present study was to attempt to clarify the relationship between
coping styles and memory bias for threat-related information using a word recognition test fol-

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lowing incidental learning (see Experiment 3). This experiment sought to examine whether and
which coping styles are related to a genuine memory bias or rather to a response bias.
1.5. Purpose
The purpose of this study was to examine the relative contribution of coping styles to attentional, interpretive, and memory biases in threat processing. The research linking attentional
processes to coping styles is inconclusive; thus, this study will attempt to clarify this relationship.
Furthermore, there is limited research examining the relationship between memory bias or interpretive bias with coping; thus, this research seeks to explore and dene the relationship between
memory bias and coping as well as the relationship between interpretive bias and coping. Finally,
since most of the research has focused on the relationship between repressive coping styles and
cognitive biases (Brosschot et al., 1999a, 1999b; Calvo & Eysenck, 2000; Dawkins & Furnham,
1989; de Ruiter & Brosschot, 1994; Derakshan & Eysenck, 1997; Eysenck & Derakshan, 1997;
Myers & McKenna, 1996) there was a need to investigate how other coping styles contribute to
these cognitive biases. Thus, this study addressed this gap in past research.
Three experiments (all using the same participants) were conducted to examine the role of
coping styles in each cognitive bias (attention, interpretation and memory). Since the same participants were involved in all three experiments the relative strength of the three biases a function
of coping styles could be compared. There was a 3-week interval between experiments to avoid
carry-over eects. Experiment 1 examined the role of dispositional coping styles in attentional
bias using the emotional Stroop word color-naming task to assess attentional bias. Experiment 2
investigated the role of coping styles in interpretive bias using an on-line inference task during
sentence reading to assess this bias. Finally, Experiment 3 examined the contribution of coping
styles to memory bias which was assessed using a word recognition test following incidental
learning. Bias was determined by either attention, interpretation or memory for the emotional
stimuli (threat-related or positive) in comparison with non-threat stimuli. The three coping styles
(task-, emotion-, and avoidance-oriented), as assessed by the CISS (Endler & Parker, 1999), were
the predictor variables; the task performance scores assessing the biases were the dependent
variables.
Based on existing research and theory, we made the following predictions:
Experiment 1: Avoidance and task-oriented coping will be associated with faster color-naming
times on the Stroop task for threat-related words as compared to neutral words. Emotion-oriented coping will be associated with slower color-naming times on the Stroop task for threat-related
words as compared to neutral words.
Experiment 2: Avoidance and task-oriented coping will promote inhibitory processing of threatrelated inferences and facilitate non-threat inferences. Emotion-oriented coping will facilitate the
processing of threat-related inferences and inhibit non-threat inferences.
Experiment 3: Avoidance and task-oriented coping will be related to remembering less threat
words on the memory task, whereas emotion-oriented coping will be positively related to
remembering more threat words on the memory task.

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2. Experiment 1: attentional bias


This experiment investigated the role of dispositional coping styles in attentional bias towards
threat-related information, using an emotional Stroop task (see Williams et al., 1996). Essentially,
words printed in dierent colors were presented on a computer screen. Participants were asked to
ignore the words and to pronounce the color in which they were presented. Color-naming times
are assumed to provide an index of the extent to which attentional resources are being allocated
to the word semantic content. The more threat-related information attracts attention, the more
interference will this produce on the processing of the color of the word, which will be reected in
an increase in the time to pronounce the word color. Evidence for an attentional bias will involve
longer color naming times for emotional words than for non-emotional words.
2.1. Method
2.1.1. Participants
Eighty-six psychology undergraduates (66 females; 20 males) took part in this experiment
in fullment of a course requirement. They were administered the Coping Inventory for
Stressful Situations (CISS; Endler & Parker, 1999; Spanish translation). This is a 48-item
self-report inventory assessing ways in which people react to dicult, stressful, or upsetting
situations. Respondents are asked to rate on a ve-point scale, ranging from not at all to
very much, the extent to which they typically engage in various strategies representing
task-oriented (solving the problem), emotion-oriented (regulating stressful emotions), and
avoidance-oriented coping.
2.1.2. Materials
A list of 90 Spanish target words were presented, of which 30 were neutral or non-threatening
(e.g. bookshop, fan, track, crew, torch, school, mill, vegetation, etc.); 30 were related to physical
threats (e.g., cancer, behead, hearse, stroke, torture, drowned, corpse, tragedy, etc.); and another 30
were related to ego threats (e.g. failure, criticism, despise, stupid, humiliation, mediocre, inept,
loser, etc.). A Oneway ANOVA (neutral vs. physical-threat vs. ego-threat words) revealed no
signicant dierences (all Fs <1) in number of letters (7.50 vs. 7.60 vs. 7.33) and frequency of use
in written language (22.8 vs. 22.9 vs. 20.3 occurrences per million, respectively; Sebastian-Galles,
Mart, Cuetos, & Carreiras, 1996).
All participants received all words twice in random order. Accordingly, there were 180 word
trials for each participant. The words were arranged in 12-row5-column matrices on a computer
screen, with a dierent block of 60 trials for each word type separately. Six colors were used
(green, red, yellow, blue, black, and grey), which were assigned randomly and in the same proportion for the three word types.
2.1.3. Procedure
Individual experimental sessions were conducted for each participant. Each block of trials
started with a xation box including the word READY for 3 s in the center of the computer
screen. This was followed by the stimulus word list of which the participant had to name the
printed colors. Instructions were to name aloud the color moving from top to bottom and from

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left to right as fast as possible, while ignoring the word content. The experimenter began timing
(by means of a Casio HS-20 stopwatch) when the color of the rst word of the block was named
and ended when the color of the last word of the block was named. The experimenter checked
response accuracy. To avoid experimenter bias, the experimenter was unaware of the participants coping style scores.
To make experimental conditions identical for all participants (a requisite for comparisons as a
function of their dierent coping styles) they were presented with the three types of words in the
same order: non-threat, physical-threat, and ego-threat words.1 The non-threat words were presented rst as it has been shown that presenting threatening stimuli prior to neutral stimuli produces a carry-over eect which impairs performance on the neutral stimuli. It is important that
no dierences as a function of coping styles emerge for non-threat wordsas they are used as a
control condition(see Fox, 1993).
2.2. Results
2.2.1. Preliminary analyses and criteria for multiple regression
Color naming times for the physical-threat words (825 ms per word; S.D.=13) and for the egothreat words (818 ms; S.D.=14) were slower than naming times for the non-threat words (779
ms; S.D.=13), t(85)=5.87, P<0.0001, and t(85)=4.83, P<0.0001, respectively, with no signicant dierences between the two types of threat-related words (P=0.22, ns).
Multiple linear regression analyses were performed, with all predictors entered simultaneously. The four predictors were the three coping styles scores (task-, emotion-, and avoidance-oriented), and gender of participants (males coded as 1; females, as 2). Gender was
included as a predictor for this and the following experiments because there were signicant
dierences between males and females for coping styles (task: males: M=61.6 vs. females:
M=57.7, t(84)=1.65, P<0.10; emotion: 38.8 vs. 46.6, t(84)=2.85, P< 0.01; and avoidance:
39.4 vs. 46.9, t(84)=2.97, P<0.01). The dependent variables were, separately, (a) naming
times in the emotional Stroop task for the non-threat words, and (b) the increase (in comparison with non-threat words) in naming times for either (b1) the physical-threat words or
(b2) the ego-threat words (thus, for b1- and b2-scores, non-threat scores served as a baseline
control).
The following statistics are particularly useful for interpreting the multiple regression analyses (see Tabachnick & Fidell, 1989): (a) the squared multiple correlation, or R2, which is
the proportion of the variance in the dependent variable that is accounted for by the best
linear combination of all predictors (i.e. the sum of joint and unique contributions); (b) the
beta coecient, or , expressing the standardized slope or estimate of the change in the
dependent variable with each unit of change in the predictor; and (c) the squared semipartial
1

In order to examine how the characteristics of the participants aect performance on each category of stimuli, we
equated the stimulus presentation conditions for all participants. The blocks of words were presented in the same order
for each subject so that we could separate the eects of individual dierences in coping styles from the dierences in
unwanted factors associated with the order of presentation of stimuli (e.g. practice eects). Thus, the factors associated
with the order of presentation were constant for all participants to avoid confounding inuences. This procedure is
congruent with other research which has investigated individual dierences (see Fox, 1993).

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correlation, or sr2, which indicates the unique contribution of each predictor to R2 after the
contribution of the other predictors is taken out. Therefore, the dierence between R2 and the
sum of sr2 represents the common variance in the dependent variable that all the predictors
jointly contribute to.
2.2.2. Relative contributions of coping styles
2.2.2.1. Non-threat words. The combined predictors did not account for statistically signicant
changes in naming times for non-threat words, R2=0.05, F(4, 81)=1.03, P=0.40, ns. That is, the
predictors did not account for signcant variations in naming times for non-threat words.
2.2.2.2. Physical-threat words (see Table 1). The combined predictors accounted for a signicant
portion of variance (22%) in naming times for physical-threat words (in comparison with those
for neutral words; i.e. b1, see earlier), F(4, 81)=5.80, P<0.0001. Avoidance coping and Task
coping made statistically reliable unique contributions, with color naming times increasing as
Avoidance coping increased (8.9% of variance), t(85)=3.02, P<0.01, and as Task coping
decreased (3.8%), t(85)=1.99, P<0.05. That is, there was a positve relationship between avoidance coping scores and naming response times, whereas there was a negative relationship between
task coping scores and naming response times.
2.2.2.3. Ego-threat words (see Table 1). The combined predictors accounted for signicant variations (15%) in naming times for ego-threat words (in comparison with those for neutral words; i.e.
b2, see earlier), F(4, 81)=3.64, P<0.01. Avoidance coping made a reliable unique contribution
(5.1%), t(85)=2.18, P<0.05, with naming response times increasing as Avoidance coping
increased. Thus, there was a positive relationship between avoidance coping scores and naming
response times.

Table 1
Regression statistics of naming times for physical-threat words (minus non-threat words) and ego-threat words (minus
non-threat words) on coping styles and gender
Beta

sr2

Physical-threat words: R2=0.22***


Task-oriented coping
Emotion-oriented coping
Avoidance-oriented coping
Gender

0.20
0.06
0.31
0.14

0.26
0.19
0.38
0.29

0.04*
0.00
0.09***
0.02

Ego-threat words: R2=0.15***


Task-oriented coping
Emotion-oriented coping
Avoidance oriented coping
Gender

0.12
0.08
0.24
0.16

0.18
0.19
0.31
0.28

0.01
0.01
0.05*
0.02

* P< 0.05.
*** P< 0.01.

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2.3. Discussion
Contrary to expectation, avoidance coping was associated with disproportionately long colornaming times for threat related words as compared with neutral words. This suggests that individuals using an avoidance coping style display increased attention towards threat word content,
or have diculty in diverting attention away from such content when it is initially encountered.
In contrast, in accord with predictions, task-oriented coping styles lead to focusing on the task at
hand and serve to prevent cognitive interference. No relationship was found between attention
bias and emotion-oriented coping.
The nding for the relationship between avoidance coping and attention bias is similar to past
research which shows that repressors have longer color-naming times for emotional words than
neutral words (Dawkins & Furnham, 1989; de Ruiter & Brosschot, 1994; Myers & McKenna,
1996). It has been suggested that this may indicate that their tendency to avoid threat-related cues
demands additional processing capacity, which slows their performance on color-naming tasks
(de Ruiter & Brosschot, 1994). The mechanisms accounting for this additional processing capacity is unknown, however looking away and distracting thoughts are considered to be possibilities
(de Ruiter & Brosschot, 1994).
It is also possible that the longer color-naming times for threat-related words in avoidant
copers is a function of the time course of the attention bias. Perhaps, the relationship between
avoidance coping and attentional bias is similar to the relationship Calvo and Eysenck (2000)
found between repression and interpretive bias. That is, it is possible that avoidance coping
facilitates early processing of threat, but inhibits later processing. The attention of avoidant
copers would be initially captured by the threat content of words; the subsequent eorts of these
individuals to inhibit such threat content would be responsible for the observed delay in color
naming times. This issue will be further addressed in the General Discussion, when we compare
the time course of the eects of coping styles on three cognitive biases.
The nding that task-oriented coping is associated with decreased cognitive interference is
consistent with past research which shows that high socially anxious women who had longer
response latencies on the Stroop task were less likely to use instrumental coping strategies (similar
to task-oriented coping styles) when faced with socially anxious situations (Kocovski, 2001). Both
these results are consistent with previous ndings that have shown the adaptive nature of taskoriented coping (Endler & Parker, 1999; Parker & Endler, 1992).

3. Experiment 2: interpretive bias


This experiment examined the role of coping styles in interpretive bias, which was measured by the
probability that harmful outcomes were inferred when reading sentences. For this purpose, an online processing task was used, which has been demonstrated to detect inferences predictive of threatening event outcomes in prior research (e.g. Calvo & Castillo, 2001). Essentially, context sentences
were presented on a computer screen, describing situations from which either neutral or threatening
outcomes could result (see Materials). Following each context sentence, a target word was presented
as a probe to be named by the participant. This word represented either the outcome to be inferred or
a non-predictable outcome. Reduced naming latency for the inferential target word subsequent to

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an inducing contextrelative to a control contextis assumed to indicate that the reader has
drawn the inference (Calvo, Castillo, & Estevez, 1999; Klin, Murray, Levine, & Guzman, 1999).
In contrast, no dierence between the inducing and the control context is expected for the nonpredictable target word. Evidence for an interpretive bias will be indicated by greater naming
latency reduction for the inferential words representing threat-related outcomes following the
inducing (relative to the control) context, in comparison with the non-threat inferential words.
3.1. Method
3.1.1. Participants
Of the 86 undergraduates participating in Experiment 1, six were excluded for Experiment 2
because of failures in the recording of naming latencies by the voice-activated relay. Accordingly,
80 participants (62 females; 18 males) were accepted.
3.1.2. Materials
We used 40 Spanish passages each of which was composed of (a) one inducing or predicting
context sentence that suggested a likely consequence of an event (e.g. for a threat-related item:
With hardly any visibility, the plane quickly approached the dangerous mountain and the passengers
began to shout in panic. The plane . . .), (b) one control context sentence that was not predictive of
any particular consequence (e.g. When the plane took o, the childs shouts of panic prevented the
passenger hearing his friends comments on the dangerous mountain. The plane . . .), (c) one inferential target word (e.g. crashed) that represented the predictable event following the predicting
context, though this event was unlikely after the control context, and (d) one non-predictable
target word (e.g. swerved) that represented a plausible, but unlikely event following both contexts.
An example of a non-threat item was: (a) predicting context (Early in the morning the gardener
took the hose, connected it to the water tap and started his work. The gardener. . .); (b) control
context (With water, the gardener cleaned the hose and the tap that the painters had soiled the day
before. The gardener. . .); (c) inferential target (watered); (d) non-predictable target (pruned).
Half of the passages (20) presented to any given participant were concerned with potentially
dangerous situations (accidents and illness), and the other half (20) with non-threat situations, in
random order. On each trial, participants were presented with either a predicting or a control
context followed by either an inferential or a non predictable target word. Before the experiments, we assessed the validity of the materials in a number of ways (see Calvo et al., 1999), such
as control of word-based priming, as well as the degree of contextual predictability for the inferential and the non-predictable target words.
3.1.3. Procedure
At the beginning of the individual sessions, participants were told that the purpose of the
experiment was to measure reading comprehension. Stimulus presentation on a screen and
response collection were controlled by PCs. Sentences were shown one word at a time: Each word
was exposed for 300 ms plus 25 ms per letter; there was a 50-ms interval between words. The
estimated mean word exposure across an average sentence was 418 ms. The pretarget word was
always presented for 450 ms, followed by a 1050-ms blank interval between the oset of this word
and the onset of the target word to be named (see rationale in Calvo et al., 1999). A trial included

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one context sentence and one target word. Each trial began when the participant pressed the
space-bar. Five-hundred ms later, the words of the context appeared on the center of the screen,
one at a time, according to the temporal parameters mentioned earlier. Then the target word
appeared anked by asterisks (e.g. ** crashed **). Participants had been told to pronounce the
target words correctly and as quickly as possible. A microphone connected to a voice-activated
relay and interfaced with the computer recorded naming latencies. Then a comprehension question was presented to ensure that the participants were understanding the explicit content of the
sentences (mean correct responses: 89%).
3.2. Results
3.2.1. Preliminary analyses to determine inferential activity
A 2 (threat vs. non-threat)2 (predicting vs. control context)2 (inferential vs. non-predictable
target) ANOVA on naming latency scores yielded a context by target interaction, F(1, 79)=5.22,
P<0.025. The inferential target words were named 34 ms faster following the predicting context
(M=633; S.D.=160) than following the control context (M=667; S.D.=135), F(1, 79)=5.80,
P<0.025. This facilitation eect indicates that inferences about predictable outcomes were made
both for threat and non-threat related events (there was no three-way interaction: F<1). In contrast, there was no signicant dierence (11 ms) for the non-predictable words (predicting:
M=686; S.D.=155; control: M=697; S.D.=149), F <1.
3.2.2. Relative contributions of coping styles
Activation scores revealing inferential activity were computed by subtracting naming latencies
in the predicting condition from those in the control condition (see Calvo, 2000). Then, multiple
linear regression analyses were performed on activation scores for the inferential threat-related
target words and the inferential non-threat target words, as dependent variables. As in Experiment 1, the predictors were the three coping modes scores (task-, emotion-, and avoidanceoriented) and gender.
3.2.2.1. Non-threat inferences. The combined predictors accounted for signicant variations
(12%) in activation of non-threat concepts, F(4, 75)=2.55, P<0.05. Avoidance coping made a
signicant unique contribution to increases in activation scores for non-threat inferences (8.4%),
t(79)=2.68, P<0.01.
3.2.2.2. Threat-related inferences (see Table 2). The combined predictors accounted for a signicant portion of variance (13%) in the activation of threat-related concepts, F(4, 75)=2.87,
P<0.025, with Emotion coping (7.5%) making a signicant unique contribution (t(79)=2.55,
P<0.025) and Avoidance coping (4.2%) making a nearly signicant unique contribution
(t(79)=1.90, P=0.061). However, whereas Emotion coping was related to increased activation,
there was a trend that avoidance coping was related to reduced activation.
Given the opposite eect of Avoidance coping on non-threat and on threat inferences, a relative
activation score was computed (i.e. threat minus non-threat) on which multiple regression analyses were performed (see Table 2). This analysis using relative activation scores is more sensitive
to the eects of avoidance coping than the separate anslyses for threat and non-threat inferences

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P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

Table 2
Regression statistics of inference activation scores for threat-related words (predicting minus control condition) and on
relative activation (threat minus non-threat) on coping styles and gender
Beta

sr2

Activation of threat: R2 =0.13*


Task-oriented coping
Emotion-oriented coping
Avoidance-oriented coping
Gender

0.08
0.30
0.22
0.11

0.11
0.24
0.20
0.07

0.01
0.07**
0.04#
0.01

Relative activation of threat vs. non-threat: R2 =0.12*


Task-oriented coping
Emotion-oriented coping
Avoidance oriented coping
Gender

0.05
0.03
0.34
0.02

0.06
0.05
0.35
0.13

0.00
0.00
0.10***
0.00

Positive relationships indicate that the predictor at issue was associated with increases in activation of threat-related
inferences (i.e. shorter naming latencies for threat words following the predicting context than following the control
context). Negative scores indicate reductions in activation of threat inferences.
#
P=0.06.
* P< 0.05.
** P< 0.025.
*** P< 0.01.

(see earlier). The combined predictors accounted for a signicant portion of variance (12%), F(4,
75)=2.64, P<0.05. Avoidance coping made a signicant unique contribution (10.4%),
t(79)=2.99, P<0.01, with avoidance being related to reduced relative activation of threat inferences in comparison with non-threat inferences.
3.3. Discussion
As hypothesized, emotion-oriented coping facilitated inference processing of threat-related
events, whereas avoidance coping appeared to have promoted inhibitory processing of threatrelated inferences, while facilitating non-threat inferences. Contrary to predictions, no relationship was found between task-oriented coping and threat-related or non-threat related inferences.
The ndings for avoidance-oriented coping styles support past research which suggests that
repressors have an opposite interpretive bias (Calvo & Eysenck, 2000; Derakshan & Eysenck, 1997;
Eysenck & Derakshan, 1997). That is, avoidant copers tend to minimize the threat-related content of
stimuli and interpret ambiguous stimuli in a non-threatening manner. Thus, there seems to be an
association between repressive coping and avoidance coping as both coping styles are predictive of a
cognitive bias characterized by the avoidance and minimization of threatful cues.
The expected result that emotion-oriented coping facilitates the interpretive bias of threat-related events supports past research which indicates that emotion-oriented coping involves focusing
on the emotional aspects of the stressful situation and, thus, increases stress, anxiety and depression (Endler & Parker, 1994, 1999). Thus, it is reasonable to expect that emotion-oriented persons
would be more likely to focus on threat-relevant stimuli than persons high on avoidance coping.

P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

855

4. Experiment 3: memory bias


The aim of this experiment was to explore the role of coping styles in selective memory for
threat-related information. We used a procedure that has been demonstrated to detect this bias
(Russo, Fox, Bellinger, & Nguyen-van-Tam, 2001). Essentially, at an initial learning phase, participants were presented with a list of words (including non-threat, positive, physical-threat, and
ego-threat words), in an incidental orienting task. This task (counting the number of syllables of
each word of a list) is assumed to promote minimal semantic analysis. If, instead of focusing only
on syllabic encoding, participants are diverted to dwell on the threat-related features of words,
this would facilitate semantic processing of these words, which would lead to store and recall
threat-related words better than non-threat words. After this incidental learning phase, there was
an unexpected recognition test, in which we collected measures of hits and false alarms, and then
sensitivity (d 0 ) and response criterion () scores were computed. The sensitivity and response criterion scores are essential indices to assess accurate memory and memory biases because they allow us
to separate general memory from response biases. If there is a memory bias for threat-related words,
then there will be increased hits and sensitivity for these words, in comparison with non-threat words.
In contrast, a tendency to report threat-related words regardless of prior presentation (i.e. a lessstringent response criterion), would reveal a response bias rather than a genuine memory bias.
4.1. Method
4.1.1. Participants
Of the 86 undergraduates participating in Experiment 1, six did not attend Experiment 3 and
two more were excluded for not complying with the requirements of the syllable-coding task at
the learning phase. Accordingly, 78 participants (58 females; 20 males) were denitely accepted.
4.1.2. Materials
A list of 64 target Spanish words (and six neutral llers that were used to control for primacy
and recency eects) were presented to all participants, including 16 non-threat words (e.g. sock,
avenue, compass, entrance, sea, wind, etc.), 16 positive words (e.g. admiration, fortune, aection,
success, prize, excellent, etc.), 16 physical-threat words (e.g. murder, stab-wound, strangle, suicide,
blood, rape, etc.), and 16 ego-threat words (e.g. mocking, error, incapacity, rejection, reproach,
clumsy, etc.). These words were randomly mixed in two dierent orders for presentation at the
learning phase. A Oneway ANOVA (neutral vs. positive vs. physical-threat vs. ego-threat words)
revealed no signicant dierences in frequency of use in written language, F <1, between the four
word types. The respective lexical frequency means were 25.7 vs. 25.4 vs. 25.4 vs. 24.2 occurrences
per million (Sebastian-Galles et al., 1996).
4.1.3. Procedure
At the incidental learning phase, participants were told that they would be presented with a list
of words, one at a time, and asked to write on a scoring sheet the number of syllables of each
word as it was presented. Each word was displayed for four seconds on a wide screen, by means
of a computer connected to a projector. After all the words had been presented, they were presented a second time in a dierent order. No mention was made that there would be a memory

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P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

test. At the end of the learning phase, there was a 5-min interval in which the experimenter talked
about the relationship of phonological processing and the syllable-counting task.
Then, at the memory phase, each participant was presented with 64 words on a sheet for a
recognition test. Of these words, eight of each type had previously been presented at the incidental learning phase, whereas another eight words of each type were lexical associates or synonyms of the remaining words, and therefore had not been actually presented (e.g. shoe for sock;
street for avenue; north for compass; praise for admiration; luck for fortune; triumph for success;
crime for murder; suocate for strangle; insult for mocking; mistake for error; ineptitude for incapacity, etc.). Participants were asked to use a 4-point scale on which 1=completely sure it was
NOT presented, 2=fairly sure it was NOT presented, 3=fairly sure it WAS presented, and 4=very
sure it WAS presented. Correct recognition or probability of hits was obtained from Yes
responses (i.e. 3+4) to the actually presented words; incorrect recognition or false alarm probability was obtained from Yes responses (i.e. 3+4) to lexical associates of the presented words.
These scores were then used to compute sensitivity (d 0 ) and response criterion (), according to
signal-detection theory (MacMillan & Creelman, 1991).
4.2. Results
4.2.1. Preliminary analyses
A 4 (word type)2 (recognition measure) ANOVA was conducted on the probability of correct
and incorrect recognition scores for the non-threat words (hits: M=0.66, S.D.=0.23; false alarms:
M=0.15, S.D.=0.16), positive words (M=0.74; S.D.=0.19; M=0.25, S.D.=0.22), physical-threat
words (M =0.77; S.D.=0.18; M=0.24, S.D.=.18) and ego-threat words (M=0.74; S.D.=0.21;
M=0.23, S.D.=0.23). There were main eects of word type, F(3, 75)=11.95, P<0.001, and
recognition measure, F(1, 77)=586.61, P<0.0001, with no interaction, F <1. Hits and false alarms
were lower for non-threat words than for positive words, t(77)=3.30, P<0.001, t(77)=4.22,
P<0.001, physical-threat words, t(77)=4.05, P<0.001, t(77)=3.52, P<0.001, and ego-threat
words, t(77)=3.37, P<0.001, t(77)=2.93, P<0.01, respectively. There were no signicant differences between the three types of emotional words in either hits or false alarms (all ts <1).
Sensitivity or discrimination scores (d 0 =Z false alarms Z hits) and response criterion scores
(b=Y hits / Y false alarms) were used as dependent variables in multiple linear regression analyses for (a) non-threat words, and also for the dierences (b) between positive and non-threat
words, (c) between physical-threat and non-threat words, and (d) between ego-threat and nonthreat words (thus, non-threat words served as a baseline control). In signal-detection theory d 0
scores are assumed to indicate how much a stimulus is discriminated when it has been previously
presented as compared with when it has not been presented. That is, d 0 is an index of accurate
recognition memory for presented information after controlling for false alarms. D0 varies from
zero to innity, with larger values indicating greater sensitivity for discriminating old from new
items.  Scores are an index of response criterion which indicate the tendency to report words as
presented, regardless of prior presentation.  scores can vary around zero, with larger positive
values indicating a conservative criterion and larger negative values indicating a liberal criterion
(e.g. a response bias). For example, a high response criterion score indicates a cautious response
style, whereas a low score reveals a risky style. As in Experiments 1 and 2, the predictors were the
three coping modes and gender.

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P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

4.2.2. Relative contributions of coping styles


4.2.2.1. Sensitivity. The combined predictors did not account for statistically signicant changes
in d0 scores for non-threat words, R2=0.04, F<1, nor for positive words, R2=0.05, F<1, physical-threat words, R2=0.03, F< 1, and ego-threat words, R2=0.03, F <1.
4.2.2.2. Response criterion. The combined predictors did not account for statistically signicant
changes in 0 scores for non-threat words, R2=0.06, F<1, positive words, R2=0.05, F <1, and
ego-threat words, R2=0.07, F(4, 72)=1.25, ns. For physical-threat words (see Table 3), the combined predictors accounted for a signicant portion of the variance (13%), F(4, 72)=2.70,
P<0.05. Emotion-oriented coping (6%) and Avoidance coping (6%) were the predictors making
signicant unique contributions, t(76)=2.34, P<0.025, t(76)=2.39, P<0.025, respectively.
However, their relationships with response criterion scores were in opposite directions: increases
in Emotion coping were associated with a lower criterion (i.e. a bias towards saying Yes to nonpresented physical-threat words), whereas increases in Avoidance coping predicted lower criterion scores (i.e. a tendency to say No to non-presented physical-threat words).
4.3. Discussion
As predicted, participants high in emotion-oriented coping were more likely to make false
alarms for physical-threat words that had not been presented at the learning phase (i.e. a less
conservative response criterion); in contrast, participants high in avoidance coping showed a
tendency to report threat related words at the time of test only if they had in fact appeared at the
learning phase (i.e. a more conservative response criterion). Nevertheless, the fact that response

Table 3
Regression statistics of response criterion () scores for physical- and ego-threat words (dierence physical- or egothreat minus non-threat) on coping styles and gender
Beta

sr2

Physical-threat words: R2=0.13*


Task-oriented coping
Emotion-oriented coping
Avoidance-oriented coping
Gender

0.03
0.27
0.28
0.07

0.03
0.19
0.25
0.08

0.00
0.06**
0.06**
0.00

Ego-threat words: R2=0.07


Task-oriented coping
Emotion-oriented coping
Avoidance oriented coping
Gender

0.15
0.10
0.20
0.04

0.15
0.05
0.19
0.03

0.02
0.01
0.04#
0.00

Negative relationships indicate that the predictor at issue was associated with decrements in response criterion (i.e. a
less conservative, or more risky, response style). Positive relationships indicate a more cautious response style.
#
P=0.09.
* P< 0.05.
** P< 0.025.

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P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

criterion, rather than sensitivity, was aected suggests that there is a response bias rather than a
bias aecting genuine memory processes, as a function of coping styles. In other words, it is a
tendency to report or to not report threat-related information that is aected, rather than a tendency to store and retrieve actually presented threat-related information.
These ndings clarify past research that shows equivocal results for the relationship between
coping and memory bias. In accord with past research on repressive coping (Davis, 1990; Myers
& Brewin, 1995; Newman & Hedberg, 1999), avoidant copers do not have a tendency to remember fewer threat-related events than other types of coping styles. Thus, refuting the existence of
avoidant copers possessing an opposite memory bias. Instead, as compared to other styles of
coping, avoidant copers are less likely to make false alarms for physical threat words not presented in the learning phase. That is, avoidant copers do no appear to be overwhelmed by threatrelevant material, and, therefore, can discriminate between presented and non-presented threat
words.
Again, given that past research indicates that emotion-oriented coping involves focusing on
emotional content (Endler & Parker, 1994, 1999), it is not surprising that increases in emotion
coping was associated with an increased incidence of making false alarms for physical threat
words. Thus, as in Experiment 2, emotion-oriented coping is associated with an increased likelihood to attend to threat-relevant stimuli.

5. General discussion
The purpose of the present study was to investigate the role of dispositional coping styles in
attentional, interpretive, and memory biases in threat processing in three separate experiments. In
summary, task-oriented coping styles appeared to facilitate color-naming of threat-related words,
whereas, avoidance coping styles were associated with a slower color-naming of threat related
words, suggesting increased attention to threatening stimuli. In addition, emotion-oriented coping
styles were associated with the facilitation of inference processing of threat-related events, whereas
avoidance coping was related to the facilitation of non-threat inferences. Finally, there was a
response bias in the recognition of presented and non-presented physical threat inferences wherein
emotion-oriented coping was positively related to increased incidence of making false alarms for
physical threat. However, avoidance coping was negatively associated with reporting false alarms.
Accordingly, avoidance coping appears to be involved in the initial attention to threat, as well
as the subsequent inhibition of threat elaboration and memory. On the other hand, emotionoriented coping promotes additional processing of threat-relevant material, once threat has been
detected, including the facilitation of interpretive bias and memory bias for threat-related information. This interpretation regarding the time course of the inuence of coping styles on cognitive biases is based on the assumption that the three dierent experimental tasks that we have
used are sensitive to dierent, sequential processing stages. Thus, the emotional Stroop task
would assess automatic initial attention to threat meaning, as soon as the words were encountered; the inference task measured activation of threat concepts 1050 ms after the presentation of
the last word in the inducing context, and is thus thought to assess late elaborative processes; and
the recognition memory task, which took place even later in time ( > 5 min), would assess
retrieval and reconstruction of previously processed information.

P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

859

This study broadened the scope of the literature on the relationship between cognitive biases
and coping styles by going beyond the focus on repression and investigating how other coping
styles contribute to these cognitive biases. The results of this study also demonstrate a similarity
between the concepts of repression coping styles and avoidance coping styles as the ndings from
this study for avoidance are similar to the ndings from past research on repression (Calvo &
Eysenck, 2000; Davis, 1990; Derakshan & Eysenck, 1997; Eysenck & Derakshan, 1997; Myers &
Brewin, 1995; Newman & Hedberg, 1999). Future research is needed to conrm this association
between repression and avoidance coping styles as well as to establish a connection between
repression and the other coping styles discussed in this paper (task and emotion).
As discussed earlier (see discussion for Experiment 1), it is possible that the opposite attention
bias (e.g. faster color-naming times on the Stroop task for threat-related words as compared to
neutral words) might not have been found because of the time course of the attention bias. That
is, perhaps avoidance coping facilitates early processing of threat, but inhibits later processing
(see Calvo & Eysenck, 2000). Initially, the attention of avoidant copers is captured by the threatening content of words; however, their subsequent eorts to inhibit this threatening content
results in their delay in color naming times. This limitation of this study (e.g. the time course of
the attention bias) should be addressed in future research.
Finally, since this study has revealed a relationship between coping styles (task, emotion,
and avoidance) and cognitive biases, future research should address how these coping styles
mediate the known relationship between psychological distress (e.g. anxiety and depression)
and cognitive biases. Attentional bias has been consistently found in high anxiety, and to a
lesser extent in depression; interpretive bias occurs in both emotional disorders; and evidence
for memory bias is more consistent for depression than for anxiety (for further discussion,
see a recent integrative article by Hertel, 2002). These dierential patterns in cognitive bias
reect main characteristics of anxiety as future-oriented worry (anticipating potential threat)
and of depression as past-oriented rumination (dwelling on actual harm). In the present study,
we have shown that coping styles are also dierently related to cognitive biases, albeit not in the
same manner as depression and anxiety. Thus, whereas avoidance coping is directly related to
attentional bias and inversely related to interpretive and memory bias, emotion coping is positively related to interpretive and memory biases, but unrelated to attentional bias. This suggests
that the contribution of these coping styles to cognitive biases does not overlap with that of
anxiety and depression. Accordingly, an issue for further research is to examine the relative role
of coping styles, as behavioural ways of responding to stressful events, and cognitive biases, as
mental processes characterising vulnerability to anxiety and depression. In other words, future
research should address how coping styles interact with the processing styles involved in psychopathology.

Acknowledgements
This research was supported by grant BSO20013753 from the DGI, Spanish Ministry of
Science and Technology. The research in this article was also supported by a Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) doctoral fellowship awarded to the second
author, and by the SSHRC grant No. 41020021417 awarded to the third author. We are

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P. Avero et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 35 (2003) 843861

grateful to Angeles Sanchez-Elvira for providing us with the Spanish translated version of the
Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations.
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