Research suggests that lower respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is associated with greater aversive responding. One physiological indicator of aversive responding is startle potentiation. While a few studies have demonstrated an inverse association between RSA and startle potentiation, no study to date has distinguished whether this relation is similar for predictable versus unpredictable aversive stimuli. This is an important distinction, given that degree of predictability has been shown to be an important determinant of aversive responding. The present study examined whether resting RSA was associated with startle eye blink responding during predictable and unpredictable threat of electric shock. Resting RSA was collected during a 6-min seated baseline phase at the beginning of the experimental session. Participants then completed a computerized startle task in which predictable and unpredictable shocks were administered. Results indicated that lower resting RSA was associated with greater startle potentiation during unpredictable threat, but not during predictable threat. These findings are consistent with a growing body of literature suggesting that individual differences in RSA are associated with aversive responding, and extend previous work by suggesting that RSA may be more robustly associated with a heightened sensitivity to unpredictable threat. This pattern of results may have implications for the understanding of pathological anxiety, given that individuals with anxiety disorders typically exhibit low RSA and heightened responding during unpredictable threat.
- Respiratory sinus arrhythmia