Psychology ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 5-11-2002


Inhibition has been proposed as a cognitive mechanism that allows persons to screen out irrelevant information. This study investigated the effects of sexual assault on inhibition. Many sexual assault survivors experience intrusive memories of their assault that may be the result of deficient inhibitory processes. On the other hand, assault survivors often cope through avoidance which may strengthen inhibitory experience. Other hypotheses investigated the possibility that inhibitory strength changes across the healing process and that inhibition was related to trauma symptomatology. Forty-four survivors of sexual assault and seventy-nine non-assaulted controls were tested on two measures of inhibition: directed forgetting (a memory task) and negative priming (an attention task). Half of each group received neutral stimuli and half received both neutral stimuli and stimuli relating to sexual assault (threat stimuli). The assault group recalled more words overall than the control group and recall was greater for threat words than for neutral words. The trauma group did not show an increase or a decrease in inhibition. Although there were not enough members to make conclusive judgments, inhibition does not seem to change over time in sexual assault survivors nor does it appear to depend on symptomatology. The assault group did not show a general cognitive deficit. Rather, persons in the trauma group had greater recall of threatening information compared to controls. Mixed support for the fear structure model proposed by Foa and Kozak (1986) and the self-reference effect was found. In addition, the directed forgetting data have implications for the resource allocation model of cognitive processes (Wingfield & Byrnes, 1981). Clinically, the findings in this study re-emphasize the pervasive and long-lasting effects of sexual assault, especially in terms of depression, anxiety, and hypervigilance for stimuli related to the trauma. These data indicate that the exaggerated focus on threat typically associated with persons diagnosed with PTSD may extend to trauma survivors who did not develop PTSD.

Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name


First Committee Member (Chair)

Paul Amrhein

Second Committee Member

Mark McDaniel

Third Committee Member

Jane Smith

Fourth Committee Member

Rodrigo Escalona




Sexual Assault, Depression, Anxiety, Hypervigilance, Inhibition

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Psychology Commons