Cognitive processing and personality traits in anorexia nervosa



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Texas Tech University


Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disorder which is characterized by: weight loss of at least 25% of original body weight, which is not due to a physical illness; intense fear of becoming obese; disturbance of body image; and refusal to maintain weight over a minimal normal weight for height and age (American Psychiatric Association, 1980). Previous cognitive research has found that anorexics are deficient in certain types of processing tasks (Fox, 1981; Strupp, Weingartner, Gwirtsman, & Kaye, in press; Witt, Ryan, & Hsu, 1985). Studies of personality attributes in anorexia nervosa have demonstrated that anorexics are obsessive, depressed, and anxious (cf. Hendren, 1983; Piran, Kennedy, Garfinkel, & Owens, 1985; Solyom, Freeman, Thomas, & Miles, 1983).

The current study was designed to assess anorexics' performance on a variety of cognitive tasks, various personality measures, and to investigate a possible link between personality attributes and cognitive performance. Five memory tasks and eight personality scales were administered to 21 anorexia nervosa outpatients and A3 controls.

The anorexics did not demonstrate a disadvantage in cognitive performance compared to the controls; instead, they showed superior ability on a verbal free recall task in which the words were all derived from a single superordinate category. For the personality measures, the anorexics scored significantly higher than the controls on measures of state depression, trait anxiety, state anxiety, and trait anger. They scored significantly lower than the controls on a measure of trait curiosity. Further analyses revealed that state depression and trait anxiety were the personality attributes that best predict anorexia nervosa. Very few results of importance were found by correlating the cognitive scores with the personality variables.

The current investigation does not support the belief that outpatient anorexics are deficient compared to controls for the cognitive tasks studied. This study also demonstrates that anorexics have a multitude of personality and emotional problems, the most notable of which are depression and anxiety. These personality and emotional difficulties are important to consider in the treatment of anorexia nervosa.