Psychosocial and Endocrine Antecedents of Responses to Social-Evaluative Stress
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Stress often precedes the onset of physical and mental health disorders, leading to costly and extended disability and even increased risk for death. I investigate psychosocial and endocrine precursors to stress responses, specifically examining the causal effects of status-relevant factors that modulate endocrine, affective, and behavioral responses to social-evaluative stressors. For example, while high social status reduces stress responses in numerous species, this stress-buffering effect of status may dissipate or even reverse during times of hierarchical instability. Similarly, some research links testosterone to reduced stress system activity, but correlational research indicates that higher testosterone is related to increased stress responses in threatening social situations. In each case, the causal influence of these psychosocial (status and hierarchy stability) and endocrine (testosterone) antecedents to stress responses was unclear. Results from this work (Chapter 2) reveal that high status in a stable hierarchy buffered stress responses and improved behavioral responses to the stressor, but high status in an unstable hierarchy boosted stress responses and did not lead to better performance. This general pattern of effects was observed across endocrine (cortisol and testosterone), psychological (feeling in control), and behavioral (competence, dominance, and warmth) responses to the stressor. Further (Chapters 4 & 6), exogenous testosterone treatment caused increased motivated persistence – which can help persevere through stressful encounters – but, once exposed to a stressor, testosterone caused increased cortisol reactivity, increased negative affect, and decreased motivation in response to social-evaluative stress, especially for individuals high in trait dominance. This work provides evidence of the causal effects of psychosocial and endocrine factors on stress responses and demonstrates the importance of considering these status-relevant precursors when investigating stress within social contexts.