Stress exposure elicits a prolonged neuroendocrine response, marked by cortisol release, which can influence important forms of affective decision-making. Identifying how stress reactivity shapes subjective biases in decisions about emotional ambiguity (i.e., valence bias) provides insight into the role stress plays in basic affective processing for healthy and clinical populations alike. Here, we sought to examine how stress reactivity affects valence decisions about emotional ambiguity. Given that stress prioritizes automatic emotional processing which, in the context of valence bias, is associated with increased negativity, we tested how individual differences in acute stress responses influence valence bias and how this decision process evolves over time. Participants provided baseline ratings of clear (happy, angry) and ambiguous (surprised) facial expressions, then re-rated similar stimuli after undergoing an acute stress or control manipulation a week later; salivary cortisol was measured throughout to assay stress reactivity. Elevations in cortisol were associated with more negative ratings of surprised faces, and with more direct response trajectories toward negative ratings (i.e., less response competition). These effects were selectively driven by the stress group, evidencing that increased stress reactivity is associated with a stronger negativity bias during ambiguous affective decision-making.
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