Open Access Research article

Attentional bias for trauma-related words: exaggerated emotional Stroop effect in Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans with PTSD

Victoria Ashley12*, Nikki Honzel12, Jary Larsen12, Timothy Justus12 and Diane Swick12

Author Affiliations

1 Research Service, Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System, Martinez, CA, USA

2 The Department of Neurology, University of California, Davis, CA, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:86  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-86

Published: 14 March 2013



Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves debilitating symptoms that can disrupt cognitive functioning. The emotional Stroop has been commonly used to examine the impact of PTSD on attentional control, but no published study has yet used it with Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, and only one previous study has compared groups on habituation to trauma-related words.


We administered the emotional Stroop, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and the PTSD Checklist (PCL) to 30 veterans with PTSD, 30 military controls, and 30 civilian controls. Stroop word types included Combat, Matched-neutral, Neutral, Positive and Negative.


Compared to controls, veterans with PTSD were disproportionately slower in responding to Combat words. They were also slower and less accurate overall, did not show interference on Negative or Positive words relative to Neutral, and showed a trend for delayed but successful habituation to Combat words. Higher PCL and BDI scores also correlated with larger interference effects.


Because of its specificity in detecting attentional biases to trauma-related words, the emotional Stroop task may serve as a useful pre- and post task with intervention studies of PTSD patients.

Posttraumatic stress disorder; PTSD; Stroop; Habituation; Trauma; Interference