Findings

On the Edge

Kevin Lewis

February 18, 2010

Effects of a supportive or an unsupportive audience on biological and psychological responses to stress

Shelley Taylor, Teresa Seeman, Naomi Eisenberger, Tamar Kozanian, Amy Moore & Wesley Moons
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, January 2010, Pages 47-56

Abstract:
Although social support is related to substantial benefits for health and well-being, research has uncovered qualifications to its benefits. In a test of the psychological and biological impact of an audience on responses to laboratory stress challenges, 183 participants going through the Trier Social Stress Test experienced either (a) an unsupportive audience, (b) a supportive audience, or (c) no audience. Both audience conditions produced significantly stronger cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure responses to the stress tasks, relative to the no-audience control, even though the supportive audience was rated as supportive. Contrary to hypotheses offered by several theories, these effects were not moderated by self-esteem, individual differences in psychological resources, or baseline social support. Psychological resources and baseline social support were, however, tied to more beneficial biological and psychological profiles at baseline and at recovery in some cases. It was concluded that when one must perform stressful tasks in front of an audience, evaluative concerns may outweigh the potential benefits of a supportive audience.

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Lack of Behavioral Imitation in Human Interactions Enhances Salivary Cortisol Levels

Marina Kouzakova, Rick van Baaren & Ad van Knippenberg
Hormones and Behavior, forthcoming

Abstract:
As inherently social animals, humans are very sensitive to behavioral signals from other members of their group. Nonconscious imitation of conspecifics' behavior (also called social mirroring) is a common manner in which people express their sense of similarity and affiliation with others. This evolutionary important behavioral repertoire has been referred to as ‘social glue' as it cultivates pro-social behaviors that foster one's acceptance by the group as well as sustain societal unity. Lack of behavior imitation therefore serves a subtle cue signaling rejection by others. Because being rejected is a stressful experience that is known to raise cortisol levels in humans and other primates such as baboons, we reasoned that not being imitated by another person during an interpersonal interaction may enhance cortisol levels as an acute physiological stress reaction to the behavioral rejection signal by their conspecifics. In the present study, female participants were unobtrusively imitated or not imitated by another person. None of the participants indicated awareness of (not) being imitated. The salivary cortisol concentrations of not imitated participants did not differ from those of the imitated participants on a baseline measurement, but they increased considerably after the interaction, whereas the cortisol level of imitated participants remained stationary. This stressful consequence of a lack of behavioral imitation was mediated by self-reported need to belong. These findings provide new insights into the impact of a lack of behavioral imitation on the receiver's hormonal secretion and its functionality in social interactions.

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A thin slice of violence: Distinguishing violent from nonviolent sex offenders at a glance

Tyler Stillman, Jon Maner & Roy Baumeister
Evolution and Human Behavior, forthcoming

Abstract:
A growing body of literature in evolutionary psychology suggests that person perception processes are adaptively tuned. The current investigation tested the hypothesis that people would be able to detect a propensity for violence in other people, based only on a brief glance at their face. Participants estimated the propensity for violence in 87 registered sex offenders after seeing photos of them for 2 s each. Estimated likelihood of violence was significantly related to actual violent history, suggesting that violent tendencies can be accurately inferred from a brief look at a person's face. Cues indicative of high masculinity and high levels of male sex hormones (heavy brow, general facial masculinity, high physical strength, younger age) were related to accurate judgments. Other cues such as facial emotion and good grooming were not associated with an actual history of violence, but nevertheless correlated with raters' judgments. Although there were no sex differences in accuracy, on average women thought targets were more violent than men did. Findings speak to the accuracy and efficiency with which people can detect potential threats to physical well-being.

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Altruism Born of Suffering and Prosocial Behavior Following Adverse Life Events: A Review and Conceptualization

Johanna Ray Vollhardt
Social Justice Research, March 2009, Pages 53-97

Abstract:
This paper introduces the concept of "altruism born of suffering," and provides a review and integration of relevant research and theories from various disciplines. In contrast to the well-supported notion that prosocial behavior is rooted in positive experiences, whereas violence and adversity often contribute to further violence and antisocial behavior, it is proposed that suffering may actually enhance the motivation to help other disadvantaged members of society, including outgroups. A motivational process model is presented that includes a typology of altruism born of suffering, integrates clinical and social psychological perspectives on underlying processes, and proposes potential mediators and moderators. Relevant empirical studies are reviewed that provide initial support for this model. A particular emphasis is placed on victims of group-based violence, and implications for intergroup relations and social justice.

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When Scary Messages Backfire: Influence of Dispositional Cognitive Avoidance on the Effectiveness of Threat Communications

Steffen Nestler & Boris Egloff
Journal of Research in Personality, forthcoming

Abstract:
We examined whether individual differences in cognitive avoidance influence the effectiveness of threat communications in changing attitudes and intentions regarding health-promoting behaviors. Two-hundred ninety-seven participants completed a measure of dispositional cognitive avoidance and read either a high or a low threat communication. We found that after a high threat message, low cognitive avoiders reported more favorable attitudes toward and intentions to adopt the action recommendation than high cognitive avoiders. The recommended response was appraised more positively by high cognitive avoiders after the low threat message than after the high threat message. Exactly the opposite pattern of results was found for low cognitive avoiders. In sum, individual differences in cognitive avoidance are an important moderator of the effectiveness of threat communications.

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Murder, she wrote: Enhanced sensitivity to negative word valence

Maha Nasrallah, David Carmel & Nilli Lavie
Emotion, October 2009, Pages 609-618

Abstract:
Enhanced sensitivity to information of negative (compared to positive) valence has an adaptive value, for example, by expediting the correct choice of avoidance behavior. However, previous evidence for such enhanced sensitivity has been inconclusive. Here we report a clear advantage for negative over positive words in categorizing them as emotional. In 3 experiments, participants classified briefly presented (33 ms or 22 ms) masked words as emotional or neutral. Categorization accuracy and valence-detection sensitivity were both higher for negative than for positive words. The results were not due to differences between emotion categories in either lexical frequency, extremeness of valence ratings, or arousal. These results conclusively establish enhanced sensitivity for negative over positive words, supporting the hypothesis that negative stimuli enjoy preferential access to perceptual processing.

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Exposure to Bioterrorism and Mental Health Response among Staff on Capitol Hill

Carol North, Betty Pfefferbaum, Meena Vythilingam, Gregory Martin, John Schorr, Angela Boudreaux, Edward Spitznagel & Barry Hong
Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, December 2009, Pages 379-388

Abstract:
The October 2001 anthrax attacks heralded a new era of bioterrorism threat in the U.S. At the time, little systematic data on mental health effects were available to guide authorities' response. For this study, which was conducted 7 months after the anthrax attacks, structured diagnostic interviews were conducted with 137 Capitol Hill staff workers, including 56 who had been directly exposed to areas independently determined to have been contaminated. Postdisaster psychopathology was associated with exposure; of those with positive nasal swab tests, PTSD was diagnosed in 27% and any post-anthrax psychiatric disorder in 55%. Fewer than half of those who were prescribed antibiotics completed the entire course, and only one-fourth had flawless antibiotic adherence. Thirty percent of those not exposed believed they had been exposed; 18% of all study participants had symptoms they suspected were symptoms of anthrax infection, and most of them sought medical care. Extrapolation of raw numbers to large future disasters from proportions with incorrect belief in exposure in this limited study indicates a potential for important public health consequences, to the degree that people alter their healthcare behavior based on incorrect exposure beliefs. Incorrect belief in exposure was associated with being very upset, losing trust in health authorities, having concerns about mortality, taking antibiotics, and being male. Those who incorrectly believe they were exposed may warrant concern and potential interventions as well as those exposed. Treatment adherence and maintenance of trust for public health authorities may be areas of special concern, warranting further study to inform authorities in future disasters involving biological, chemical, and radiological agents.

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In utero cortisol and testosterone exposure and fear reactivity in infancy

Kristin Bergman, Vivette Glover, Pampa Sarkar, Dave Abbott & Thomas O'Connor
Hormones and Behavior, forthcoming

Abstract:
Fetal programming is emerging as a major conceptual model for understanding developmental origins of health and disease, including behavioral outcomes. As part of a larger study of prenatal stress and child development, we examined the association between prenatal hormone exposure and fear reactivity, a temperament dimension that is a predictor of long-term behavioral adjustment. Amniotic fluid was collected from a sample of women undergoing clinically indicated amniocentesis for later analysis of cortisol and testosterone. Children with normal birth outcomes were recalled for follow-up assessment at 17 months, at which time we administered an observational assessment of temperament (lab-TAB; n=108). Information on pregnancy and obstetric outcome was included as covariates. Results indicated that there was a significant association between prenatal testosterone and observed fear reactivity in boys (r(53)=0.34, p=0.01); no significant effect was found in girls (r(54)=-.07, ns); the effect remained when obstetric, psychosocial, and parental anxiety were controlled for. There was not a significant association between fetal cortisol exposure and fear reactivity. The prediction from in utero testosterone exposure to fear reactivity in boys extends prior research on prenatal testosterone, and may represent an association with a general predisposition to greater arousal and reactivity.

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Two Decades of Terror Management Theory: A Meta-Analysis of Mortality Salience Research

Brian Burke, Andy Martens & Erik Faucher
Personality and Social Psychology Review, forthcoming

Abstract:
A meta-analysis was conducted on empirical trials investigating the mortality salience (MS) hypothesis of terror management theory (TMT). TMT postulates that investment in cultural worldviews and self-esteem serves to buffer the potential for death anxiety; the MS hypothesis states that, as a consequence, accessibility of death-related thought (MS) should instigate increased worldview and self-esteem defense and striving. Overall, 164 articles with 277 experiments were included. MS yielded moderate effects (r =.35) on a range of worldview- and self-esteem-related dependent variables (DVs), with effects increased for experiments using (a) American participants,(b) college students,(c) a longer delay between MS and the DV, and (d) people-related attitudes as the DV. Gender and self-esteem may moderate MS effects differently than previously thought. Results are compared to other reviews and examined with regard to alternative explanations of TMT. Finally, suggestions for future research are offered.

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Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala

Britta Hölzel, James Carmody, Karleyton Evans, Elizabeth Hoge, Jeffery Dusek, Lucas Morgan, Roger Pitman & Sara Lazar
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, forthcoming

Abstract:
Stress has significant adverse effects on health and is a risk factor for many illnesses. Neurobiological studies have implicated the amygdala as a brain structure crucial in stress responses. Whereas hyperactive amygdala function is often observed during stress conditions, cross-sectional reports of differences in gray matter structure have been less consistent. We conducted a longitudinal MRI study to investigate the relationship between changes in perceived stress with changes in amygdala gray matter density following a stress-reduction intervention. Stressed but otherwise healthy individuals (N = 26) participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention. Perceived stress was rated on the perceived stress scale (PSS) and anatomical MR images were acquired pre- and post-intervention. PSS change was used as the predictive regressor for changes in gray matter density within the bilateral amygdalae. Following the intervention, participants reported significantly reduced perceived stress. Reductions in perceived stress correlated positively with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density. Whereas prior studies found gray matter modifications resulting from acquisition of abstract information, motor and language skills, this study demonstrates that neuroplastic changes are associated with improvements in a psychological state variable.

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Is freezing an adaptive reaction to threat? Evidence from heart rate reactivity to emotional pictures in victims of war and torture

Hannah Adenauer, Claudia Catani, Julian Keil, Hannah Aichinger & Frank Neuner
Psychophysiology, March 2010, Pages 315-322

Abstract:
The influence of past traumatic experiences on the defense cascade in response to affective pictures was examined in survivors of war and torture. Trauma-exposed refugees with and without Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as healthy individuals viewed 75 pictures that varied in emotional content. Heart rate (HR) was recorded during the flickering stimulation of affective pictures in the context of a steady-state experiment. Whereas healthy controls showed the typical orienting response to aversive stimuli, PTSD patients reacted with an almost immediate increase in HR toward unpleasant pictures. Trauma-exposed participants without PTSD showed an indiscriminate orienting response regardless of picture category. The present findings argue for a faster flight/fight response to threatening cues in PTSD. In contrast, trauma-exposed controls seem to exhibit a state of permanent alertness toward a wide range of stimuli.

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Rapid Detection of Emotion from Human Vocalizations

Disa Anna Sauter & Martin Eimer
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, March 2010, Pages 474-481

Abstract:
The rapid detection of affective signals from conspecifics is crucial for the survival of humans and other animals; if those around you are scared, there is reason for you to be alert and to prepare for impending danger. Previous research has shown that the human brain detects emotional faces within 150 msec of exposure, indicating a rapid differentiation of visual social signals based on emotional content. Here we use event-related brain potential (ERP) measures to show for the first time that this mechanism extends to the auditory domain, using human nonverbal vocalizations, such as screams. An early fronto-central positivity to fearful vocalizations compared with spectrally rotated and thus acoustically matched versions of the same sounds started 150 msec after stimulus onset. This effect was also observed for other vocalized emotions (achievement and disgust), but not for affectively neutral vocalizations, and was linked to the perceived arousal of an emotion category. That the timing, polarity, and scalp distribution of this new ERP correlate are similar to ERP markers of emotional face processing suggests that common supramodal brain mechanisms may be involved in the rapid detection of affectively relevant visual and auditory signals.

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Adult attachment insecurity and hippocampal cell density

Markus Quirin, Omri Gillath, Jens Pruessner & Lucas Eggert
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, forthcoming

Abstract:
Recent findings associate attachment insecurity (assessed as levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance) with poor emotion regulation. In turn, emotion regulation has been shown to be associated with hippocampus (HC) functioning and structure. Clinical disorders such as depression and PTSD, which have been previously associated with attachment insecurity, are also known to be linked with reduced hippocampal cell density. This suggests that attachment insecurity may also be associated with reduced hippocampal cell density. We examined this hypothesis using T1 images of 22 healthy young adults. In line with our hypothesis, attachment avoidance was associated with bilateral HC reduction, whereas attachment anxiety was significantly related to reduced cell concentration in the left HC. The findings are compatible with a neurotoxical model of stress-induced cell reduction in the HC, providing further information on emotion regulation abilities among insecurely attached individuals.


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