If or when? Uncertainty’s role in anxious anticipation

Uncertainty is often associated with subjective distress and a potentiated anxiety response. Occurrence uncertainty, or the inability to predict if a threat will occur, has rarely been compared experimentally with temporal uncertainty, or the inability to predict when a threat will occur. The current study aimed to (a) directly compare the anxiogenic effects of anticipating these two types of uncertain threat, as indexed by the eyeblink startle response, and (b) assess the relationship between startle response to occurrence and temporal uncertainty and individual differences in self-reported intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety. The findings indicated that anticipation during occurrence uncertainty elicited a larger startle response than anticipating a certain threat, but anticipation during temporal uncertainty was superior at potentiating startle blink overall. Additional analyses of the effects of order and habituation further highlighted temporal uncertainty’s superiority in eliciting greater startle responding. This suggests that, while uncertainty is physiologically anxiety provoking, some level of certainty that the threat will occur enhances the robustness of the physiological anxiety response. However, self-reported anxiety was equivalent for temporal and occurrence uncertainty, suggesting that, while defensive responding may be more affected by temporal uncertainty, people perceive both types of uncertainty as anxiogenic. Individual differences in the intolerance of uncertainty and other anxiety measures were not related to anticipatory startle responsivity during any of the conditions.