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Sustained attention, a key cognitive skill that improves during childhood and adolescence, tends to be worse in some emotional and behavioural disorders. Sustained attention is typically studied in non-affective task contexts; here, we used a novel task to index performance in affective versus neutral contexts across adolescence (N = 465; ages 11-18). We asked whether: (i) performance would be worse in negative versus neutral task contexts; (ii) performance would improve with age; (iii) affective interference would be greater in younger adolescents; (iv) adolescents at risk for depression and higher in anxiety would show overall worse performance; and (v) would show differential performance in negative contexts. Results indicated that participants performed more poorly in negative contexts and showed age-related performance improvements. Those at risk of depression performed more poorly than those at lower risk. However, there was no difference between groups as a result of affective context. For anxiety there was no difference in performance as a function of severity. However, those with higher anxiety showed less variance in their reaction times to negative stimuli than those with lower anxiety. One interpretation is that moderate levels of emotional arousal associated with anxiety make individuals less susceptible to the distracting effects of negative stimuli.

Original publication




Journal article


Cogn Emot

Publication Date



1 - 13


Sustained attention, adolescence, affect, anxiety, depression