In this study, we investigated the associations between implicit associative learning with the cortisol and salivary alpha-amylase (sAA) stress response to an acute stressor as well as their associations with attention. Eighty one healthy adults (25 male) participated and either performed the socially evaluated cold-pressor test (SECPT) or a warm-water control task (WWT). Either prior to or immediately after the SECPT/WWT, participants implicitly learned digit-symbol pairs. A not-previously announced recall test was conducted about 20 min after the SECPT/WWT. Attention was assessed by means of a Stroop task at nine time points over the course of the experiment. Memory recall performance was not significantly associated with the acquisition time point (pre or post stressor) and did not significantly differ between the responder groups (i.e., non-responders, sAA-and-cortisol responders, only sAA responders, and only cortisol responders). Attentional performance increased throughout the experiment (i.e., reaction times in the Stroop task decreased). No differences in the attentional time course were found between the responder groups. However, some associations were found (puncorrected
< 0.05) that did not pass the multiple comparison adjusted alpha level of αadjusted
= 0.002, indicating different associations between attention and implicit learning between the responder groups. We conclude that the associations of sAA and cortisol responses with implicit learning are complex and are related to each other. Further studies in which both (sAA and cortisol responses) are selectively (de-) activated are needed. Furthermore, different learning tasks and less—potentially stressful—attentional assessments should be used in future research. Moreover, field studies are needed in which the associations between acute stress and implicit associative learning are investigated in everyday life.
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