Autonomic nervous system correlates to readiness state and negative outcome during
visual discrimination tasks.
, Aymeric Guillot
, Christian Collet
CRIS EA 647, Performance Motrice Mentale et du Matériel (P3M), Université de Lyon, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1-UFR STAPS, 27-29, Boulevard du 11 Novembre 1918,
69622 Villeurbanne Cedex, France.
Institut Universitaire de France, 103 Boulevard Saint-Michel, 75005 Paris, France
Received 17 July 2011
Received in revised form 1 February 2012
Accepted 20 February 2012
Available online 28 February 2012
Autonomic nervous system
Decision-making in daily activities require different levels of mental load depending on both objective task
requirements and self-perception of task constraints. Such factors elicit strain that could inﬂuence informa-
tion processing, decision-making, and forthcoming performance. This experiment aimed at studying how
task difﬁculty, errors and unfair feedback may impact strain. Participants were requested to compare two
polygons and to decide as quickly and accurately as possible whether these were identical or different.
Task difﬁculty depended upon the number of polygon sides (from 12 to 21 sides) and their degree of similar-
ity (different by 1, 2 or 3 sides). Reaction time (RT) and response accuracy were the dependent variables as
well as electrodermal activity (EDA) and Instantaneous Heart Rate (IHR). Physiological variables from the au-
tonomic nervous system were expected to evolve as a function of strain. As expected, we found that RT in-
creased along with task difﬁculty. Similarly, the amplitude of IHR responses was affected by task difﬁculty.
We recorded bradycardia during the 5 s pre-stimulation period associated with correct responses, while
wrong responses were associated with tachycardia. Bradycardia was thus a predictive index of performance
related to the readiness to act when the participants focused on external cues. Processing identical polygons
elicited longer electrodermal responses than those for different polygons. Indeed, the comparison of two dif-
ferent polygons ended as early as the difference was found. When similar, the participants were still looking
for a difference and the issue was uncertain until the performance was displayed. Unfair information, i.e.
wrong feedback associated with a good response, as well as response errors elicited larger and longer electro-
dermal responses. Autonomic nervous system activity was thus task-speciﬁc, and correlated to both cognitive
and emotional processes.
© 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Daily activities are made of a series of decision-making involving
more or less complex information processing. Mental operations re-
quiring to carry out complex behaviors result in a mental load
depending on both the speciﬁc features of the task (task constraints)
and the own perception of these constraints (the cost the individual
underwent during task performance). Among several deﬁnitions of
stress, Gaillard (1993) pointed out that stress is “an input variable re-
ferring to the demands of the environment”. According to Luczak and
Göbel (2000), the general idea of the stress–strain concept describes
the meaning of nonlinear and individually different reactions (strain)
as a consequence of task demands and task conditions (stress). The
question of whether task demand may exceed the individual proces-
sing capacities, thus leading to overload, has often been asked. In-
deed, Ninio and Kahneman (1974) showed that overload may have
detrimental effect on performance such as increased reaction time
(RT) or decreased accuracy, or both. This may be due to exogenous
components e.g., time pressure or a secondary task with high distrac-
tion power, which might further interact with endogenous factors
e.g., perceived difﬁculty, level of experience (Boucsein and Backs,
2000, 2009; Collet et al., 2009).
Methodological concerns focused on how evaluating the per-
ceived constraints should be questioned. We may hypothesize that
the perception of both external constraints and internal state is pro-
cessed simultaneously with their emotional signiﬁcance. Cognition
and emotion are thus believed to interact. Indeed, the role of emotion
in decision-making has been increasingly studied in the ﬁeld of neu-
roscience (Damasio, 1996; Bechara et al., 2000; Bechara and Damasio,
2005; Cella et al., 2007). Obviously, negative emotions are likely to
impair the efﬁciency of information processing, some relevant infor-
mation being probably missed or biased by excessive strain
(Gaillard and Kramer, 2000). The feedback associated with good or
bad performance is likely to make the emotional state changing. For
instance, feeling unfairness causes negative emotion at least, irrita-
tion or anger and frustration. Potential subsequent detrimental
International Journal of Psychophysiology 84 (2012) 211–218
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