Intra-individual variability identifies individuals vulnerable to contextually induced executive lapses


Contextual stressors, such as engagement in burdensome emotion regulation known as expressive suppression (ES), can result in transient but clinically meaningful decrement in performance on measures of executive functioning (EF). The goal of the present investigation was to examine whether intra-individual variability (IIV-I), which has been identified as an indicator of cognitive weakness, could serve as a marker of vulnerability to EF decrements due to both naturally-occurring and experimentally-manipulated ES.

In Study 1, 180 cognitively healthy older adults completed the Push-Turn-Taptap (PTT) task to assess IIV-I, four Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System (D-KEFS) subtests to assess EF, and the Burden of State Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (B-SERQ) to assess naturally-occurring ES. In Study 2, a subset (n = 81) of participants underwent experimental manipulation to induce ES, followed by second administration of the D-KEFS to examine ES-induced decrements in EF.

In Study 1, hierarchical linear regression yielded a significant interaction between ES and IIV-I as predictors of EF performance, demonstrating that high ES was associated with low EF only among individuals with high IIV-I. In Study 2, repeated measures ANOVA demonstrated an interaction between time (pre- vs. post- manipulation), group (ES vs. control), and IIV-I (high vs. low), such that only individuals who exhibited high IIV-I were negatively impacted by the ES manipulation.

IIV-I moderates the association between ES and EF, such that only individuals with high IIV-I exhibit vulnerability to the impact of ES. Thus, IIV-I may act as a marker of vulnerability to temporary EF depletion.

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