Social-evaluative threat and proinflammatory cytokine regulation: an experimental laboratory investigation.
ABSTRACT This study experimentally tested whether a stressor characterized by social-evaluative threat (SET), a context in which the self can be judged negatively by others, would elicit increases in proinflammatory cytokine activity and alter the regulation of this response. This hypothesis was derived in part from research on immunological responses to social threat in nonhuman animals. Healthy female participants were assigned to perform a speech and a math task in the presence or absence of an evaluative audience (SET or non-SET, respectively). As hypothesized, stimulated production of the proinflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) increased from baseline to poststressor in the SET condition, but was unchanged in the non-SET condition. Further, the increases in TNF-alpha production correlated with participants' cognitive appraisals of being evaluated. Additionally, the ability of glucocorticoids to shut down the inflammatory response was decreased in the SET condition. These findings underscore the importance of social evaluation as a threat capable of eliciting proinflammatory cytokine activity and altering its regulation.
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ABSTRACT: Psychological detachment from work is important for facilitating recovery. This can be threatened by rumination, or thinking about the day's stressors. Rumination may lead to distress, fatigue and extended activation of stress-related systems, but findings are not unequivocal. Level of construal (abstract or concrete) and type of mentation (imagery or verbal thought) used during stressor-focused rumination may shape physiological and affective responses and impact recovery. This study tested whether blood pressure (BP) and anxiety responses to stressor-focused rumination differ by mentation type and construal level. Healthy undergraduates (n = 136) performed a speech stressor and then completed a rumination task in one of four randomly assigned conditions: concrete imagery, abstract imagery, concrete verbal thought or abstract verbal thought. Anxiety and continuous BP were assessed. Concrete rumination led to greater BP, whereas rumination with abstract construals led to lower BP. Furthermore, participants in the abstract conditions had greater increases in anxiety following stressor-focused rumination than in the concrete conditions. Results suggest that the immediate physiological and psychological consequences of stressor-focused rumination depend upon mode of thought. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.Stress and Health 08/2014; 30(3). · 1.34 Impact Factor
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ABSTRACT: There is burgeoning interest in the ability to detect inflammatory markers in response to stress within naturally occurring social contexts and/or across multiple time points per day within individuals. Salivary collection is a less invasive process than current methods of blood collection and enables intensive naturalistic methodologies, such as those involving extensive repeated measures per day over time. Yet the reliability and validity of saliva-based to blood-based inflammatory biomarkers in response to stress remains unclear. We review and synthesize the published studies that have examined salivary markers of inflammation following exposure to an acute laboratory stressor. Results from each study are reviewed by analyte (IL-1β, TNF-α, IL-6, IL-2, IL-4, IL-10, IL-12, CRP) and stress type (social-cognitive and exercise-physical), after which methodological issues and limitations are addressed. Although the literature is limited, several inflammatory markers (including IL-1β, TNF-α, and IL-6) have been reliably determined from saliva and have increased significantly in response to stress across multiple studies, with effect sizes ranging from very small to very large. Although CRP from saliva has been associated with CRP in circulating blood more consistently than other biomarkers have been associated with their counterparts in blood, evidence demonstrating it reliably responds to acute stress is absent. Although the current literature is presently too limited to allow broad assertion that inflammatory biomarkers determined from saliva are valuable for examining acute stress responses, this review suggests that specific targets may be valid and highlights specific areas of need for future research.Brain Behavior and Immunity 09/2014; · 5.61 Impact Factor
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ABSTRACT: Female college students take a math exam described as gender-fair or gender-biased.•In one condition, participants directed to reappraise physiological arousal.•Performance on math exam and post-exam levels of the cytokine IL-6 were measured.•Reappraisal of physiological arousal buffers inflammatory responses to exam across conditions.•Reappraisal of arousal especially effective buffer of inflammatory responses in stereotype threat condition.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 01/2015; 56. · 2.22 Impact Factor
Social-Evaluative Threat and
An Experimental Laboratory Investigation
Sally S. Dickerson,1Shelly L. Gable,2Michael R. Irwin,3Najib Aziz,4and Margaret E. Kemeny5
1Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine;2Department of Psychology, University
of California, Santa Barbara;3Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, Semel Institute for Neuroscience, David
Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles;4Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine,
University of California, Los Angeles; and5Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco
ABSTRACT—This study experimentally tested whether a
stressor characterized by social-evaluative threat (SET),
a context in which the self can be judged negatively by
others, would elicit increases in proinflammatory cytokine
activity and alter the regulation of this response. This
hypothesis was derived in part from research on immu-
nological responses to social threat in nonhuman animals.
Healthy female participants were assigned to perform a
speech and a math task in the presence or absence of an
evaluative audience (SET or non-SET, respectively). As
hypothesized, stimulated production of the proinflamma-
tory cytokine tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) increased
from baseline to poststressor in the SETcondition, but was
unchanged in the non-SET condition. Further, the in-
creases in TNF-a production correlated with participants’
cognitive appraisals of being evaluated. Additionally, the
ability of glucocorticoids to shut down the inflammatory
response was decreased in the SETcondition. These find-
ings underscore the importance of social evaluation as a
threat capable of eliciting proinflammatory cytokine ac-
tivity and altering its regulation.
Preserving a positive social self—maintaining one’s social es-
teem, status, and acceptance—is central to well-being and
survival (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Therefore, conditions that
threaten the social self may elicit psychological, physiological,
the situation (e.g., Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2004).
when an aspect of the self could be negatively judged by others
(Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004). Previous work has demonstrated
that SET triggers specific psychological and physiological
changes. For example, social-evaluative stressors (e.g., deliv-
ering a speech in front of an audience) are more likely to elicit
the hormone cortisol than are otherwise-equivalent stressors
without social evaluation (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004; Dick-
erson, Mycek, & Zaldivar, 2008; Gruenewald, Kemeny, Aziz, &
cortisol correlate with the self-evaluative cognitions and emo-
tions experienced under SET, demonstrating patterned psy-
chobiological changes (Dickerson et al., 2008; Gruenewald
et al., 2004).
Other physiological responses may also be elicited by SET.
Evidence from nonhuman animals demonstrates that social
specificity with regard to the nature of the threat and the im-
munological responses observed. Proinflammatory cytokines,
including tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a), are chemical com-
munication molecules that orchestrate the inflammatory im-
mune response, which is integral for fighting infection and
healing from injury. Animals experiencing social threats, such
as social subordination or defeat, show greater stimulated pro-
duction of proinflammatory cytokines and increases in other
inflammatory markers compared with animals exposed to either
other types of stressors (e.g., physical restraint) or nonstressful
Address correspondence to Sally S. Dickerson, Department of Psy-
chology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, 3340
Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697-7085, e-mail: email@example.com.
Volume ]]]—Number ]]
Copyright r 2009 Association for Psychological Science
control conditions (Avitsur, Stark, & Sheridan, 2001; Quan
& Engler, 1998). Release of proinflammatory cytokines in the
context of social subordination or defeat is thought to be adap-
tive, for example, to prepare the immune system for potential
wounding or infection stemming from an antagonistic social
encounter (Dhabhar, 1998), or to support behavioral patterns of
submission or disengagement that could be functional in this
context (Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2009).
Socialthreatsmaynot onlyincreaseproinflammatory activity,
but also alter the regulation of this response. High levels of
glucocorticoids (cortisol or its synthetics, hydrocortisone and
dexamethasone) typically inhibit the production and expression
glucocorticoids in humans (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004) and in
nonhuman animals (Sapolsky, 2005), certain threats may in-
terfere with the glucocorticoid-driven inhibitory process,
thereby leading to simultaneous elevations in glucocorticoid
the ability of glucocorticoids to shut down inflammatory pro-
cesses in nonhuman animals (Avitsur, Padgett, & Sheridan,
glucocorticoids to reign in proinflammatory responses (i.e., de-
of glucocorticoid receptors on immune cells that produce pro-
inflammatory cytokines, glucocorticoids become less able to
alter (inhibit) the activity of these cells. Decreases in gluco-
corticoid sensitivity may be specific to social threat, as other
stressors have not induced these immunoregulatory changes
(Sheridan et al., 2000).
In summary, research with nonhuman animals demonstrates
alters the ability of glucocorticoids to regulate this response.
These responses may be tied to the social nature of the threat, as
not all types of stressors appear to elicit them. However, this
hypothesis has not been tested in humans. The majority of the
studies examining proinflammatory activity and regulation in
humans have focused on whether disease states alter inflamma-
tory processes (e.g., Davis et al., 2008; Miller, Rohleder, Stetler,
& Kirschbaum, 2005), on the physiological mechanisms through
which these changes occur (e.g., Bierhaus et al., 2003), and on
individual differences that explain variability in these effects
(e.g., Brydon, Edwards, Mohamed-Ali, & Steptoe, 2004; Rohle-
der, Schommer, Hellhammer, Engel, & Kirschbaum, 2001). Al-
though qualitative and quantitative reviews demonstrate that,
overall, acute psychological stressors can activate inflammatory
processes (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004; Steptoe, Hamer, & Chida,
Kirschbaum, 2003), no studies have directly compared stressor
contexts to test whether certain stressors are more likely than
others to elicit these responses. Additionally, little attention has
potential changes in inflammatory activity.
Drawing on research on social threat in nonhuman animals,
and on our own work demonstrating that the cognitions and
emotions often experienced under social-evaluative threat are
associated with increased proinflammatory activity (Dickerson,
Kemeny, Aziz, Kim, & Fahey, 2004), we hypothesized that,
compared with stressors without a social-evaluative component,
social-evaluative stressors would elicit greater increases in
proinflammatory cytokine activity and reduce the ability of
we hypothesized that social-evaluative psychological responses
(i.e., perceptions of social evaluation) would be associated with
the immunological changes.
Our study employed the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST;
Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993), which involves
standardized speech and mental-arithmetic components. Par-
ticipants were randomly assigned to perform the TSST in its
typical form (with an evaluative audience present; SET condi-
tion) or in a modified version in which they performed the tasks
alone in a room (non-SET condition). This paradigm has been
effective in manipulating social-evaluative threat while holding
other factors, such as effort, task difficulty, and participants’
perceptions of their performance, constant across conditions
(Gruenewald et al., 2004). Heart rate (HR) and blood pressure
were assessed as markers of engagement in the task and arousal
(e.g., Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996), which we hypothesized
would increase in both conditions (Gruenewald et al., 2004).
Proinflammatory cytokine activity was indexed via li-
popolysaccharide- (LPS-)stimulated production of the cytokine
TNF-a; this measure assesses the ability of cells to pro-
duce cytokines upon challenge with a bacterial-wall product.
We examined TNF-a because it is a critical mediator of the
inflammatory response and has been shown to be sensitive to
social threat in humans (Miller et al., 2005) and in nonhuman
animals (Avitsur et al., 2006). In order to assess relative sensi-
tivity to glucocorticoids, we also assessed LPS-stimulated pro-
duction of TNF-a after adding three concentrations of
hydrocortisone to the blood samples. Because studies have re-
ported gender differences in the reactivity and regulation of
inflammatory processes (Rohleder et al., 2001), this investiga-
tion was limited to healthy women.
Thirty-nine undergraduate females1participated in a study
described as examining ‘‘health responses to laboratory tasks.’’
disorders, had acute or chronic health problems, engaged in
1Forty-two women were initially recruited. One withdrew after hearing the
experimental instructions, and another became physically ill during the ses-
sion; an additional woman’s scores on baseline questionnaires fell more than 4
standard deviations above the mean. These participants were not included in
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Social-Evaluative Threat and Inflammatory Processes
certain health behaviors (e.g., smoking), or used prescription
medications (e.g., oral contraceptives) that could alter immune
responses. Participants’ average age was 21.0 years (SD 5 2.0),
and their self-reported ethnic backgrounds were diverse (44%
Asian or Pacific Islander, 23% Caucasian, 26% Latina or Chi-
cana, and 7% other ethnicities).
Participants were instructed not to exercise, drink alcohol, or
take nonprescription medication on the day of their appoint-
ment, and not to consume a major meal or caffeine during the
hour prior to their afternoon session. After they provided in-
in the nondominant forearm, and a blood pressure cuff was
placed on the opposite arm. During the baseline phase, partic-
ipants completed questionnaires for 20 min, and cardiovascular
assessments were collected. Then, the baseline blood sample
A modified versionof the TSST (Kirschbaum et al., 1993) was
used; participants had 10 min to prepare and 5 min to deliver a
speech was followed by a 5-min computerized arithmetic task,
which required participants to mentally solve complex arith-
time remaining (Pruessner, Hellhammer, &Kirschbaum, 1999).
Prior to hearing the task instructions, participants were ran-
domly assigned to the SET (n 5 19) or non-SET (n 5 20) con-
dition. In the SETcondition, instructions were delivered by two
female undergraduateassistants,whoexplainedthatthey would
be present during the tasks. Participants in the non-SET con-
dition received instructions via an audio-recorded message,
which stated that they would be performing the tasks alone in a
room. Remaining instructions were identical for the two condi-
Participants completed the tasks in the social context con-
sistent with their condition. In the SETcondition, the audience
and rejecting facial expressions (without providing verbal
in the room. Immediately after the stressor, participants com-
collected. A recovery blood sample was taken 40 min later, and
then participants were debriefed and compensated ($55).
The Performance Attribution Questionnaire assessed partici-
pants’ perceptions of their overall performance, the task’s
difficulty level, and how controllable, effortful, and challenging
being evaluated during the task.
The Health Behavior Questionnaire assessed health behav-
iors during the past week, day, and hour. The questions focused
on behaviors that could alter immunological responses, in-
cluding use of alcohol, drugs, and medication, as well as exer-
cise, eating, sleeping, and smoking. Participants were also
asked to indicate the current phase of their menstrual cycle.
Stimulated Proinflammatory Cytokine Production
LPS-stimulated TNF-a production in whole blood was assessed
at baseline and 25 min (posttask) and 65 min (recovery) from
onset of the stressor. Using standard laboratory procedures
(Bloemena, Roos, Van Heijst, Vossen, & Schellekens, 1989), we
added 100 pg of LPS (Sigma-Aldrich, St. Louis, MO) to 1 ml of
1:5 diluted whole blood (200 ml of whole blood 1 800 ml of 1?
phosphate buffered saline) and incubated the mixture for 20 hr.
This dose of LPS was used because we previously found that it
induces a robust yet submaximal response, allowing for the
assessment of individual differences. After incubation, the
testing. All samples were assayed in duplicate, and TNF-a
levels were measured using the Quantikine immunoassay kit
from R&D Systems (Minneapolis, MN) according to the manu-
was 4.4 pg/ml, and intra- and interassaycoefficients ofvariation
were less than 10%.
Glucocorticoid sensitivity was assessed at baseline and 25 min
from onset of the stressor (posttask) in the presence of different
concentrations (10?8, 10?7, and 10?6moles) of hydrocortisone
added to 100 pg/ml of LPS and 1:5 diluted whole blood. TNF-a
levels were then quantified, as described in the previous para-
graph. We used hydrocortisone (or cortisol), rather than dexa-
response (Davis et al., 2008). Optimal hydrocortisone concen-
trations were determined through previous quality-control tests
and protocols conducted in the Clinical Immunology Research
Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles (Bower
et al., 2007; Davis et al., 2008).
A Critikon automatic sphygmomanometer (Dinamap Pro100
model; GE Healthcare, Piscataway, NJ) was used to assess
systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure (DBP),
mean arteriole pressure (MAP), and HR. Assessments were tak-
en every 5 min during baseline and speech preparation, and
every 2 min during the speech and math tasks. Readings were
averaged to produce one value for each of these four study
phases (mean a 5 .86).
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S.S. Dickerson et al.
Primary hypotheses were tested using a mixed-model analysis of
variance (ANOVA) with condition (SET vs. non-SET) as a be-
tween-subjects variable and time of assessment as a within-
subjects variable. For the analyses of glucocorticoid sensitivity,
concentration (0, 10?8, 10?7, and 10?6moles) as an additional
within-subjects variable. Univariate ANOVAs tested for differ-
at specific time points or hydrocortisone concentrations.
Participants in the SET and non-SET conditions did not differ
MAP, and HR: ps > .13). We tested whether health behaviors
(e.g., sleep, medication use, exercise) or phase of the menstrual
cycle was associated with TNF-a production at baseline or in
response to the stressor, as this could potentially confound the
results. The correlations were not significant (all ps > .13).
Task Appraisals and Manipulation Checks
Posttask ratings demonstrated that the SET manipulation was
successful. As Table 1 shows, participants in the SETcondition
believed their performance on the tasks was being evaluated
more than did participants in the non-SETcondition. However,
the two conditions did not differ significantly in participants’
ratings of task difficulty, effort expended, how challenging or
controllable the task was, or their perceptions of how well they
performed. Thus, participants in the two conditions perceived
the stressor similarly along these dimensions.
Participants in both conditions showed elevations in cardio-
vascular parameters in response to the stressor; there were
significant multivariate effects of time for SBP, DBP, MAP, and
similar for the SET and non-SET conditions. There were no
significant Time ? Condition interactions—SBP: F(3, 30) 5
levels of engagement and arousal were comparable in the SET
Stimulated TNF-a Production
Consistent with hypotheses, analyses revealed a significant
Time ? Condition interaction for TNF-a production, F(2, 34) 5
3.95, p < .05. As depicted in Figure 1, participants in the SET
condition showed a significant increase in TNF-a production
from baseline to posttask, t(18) 5 4.35, p < .001, and this
increase was maintained at the 40-min recovery time point,
t(18) 5 2.36, p < .05. However, participants in the non-SET
condition showed no changes in TNF-a production from base-
line to posttask, t(18) 5 1.51, p > .14, or from baseline to re-
covery, t(18) 5 0.01, p > .20. Furthermore, the differences in
TNF-a production between the SET and non-SET conditions
were significant at posttask, F(1, 35) 5 7.34, p < .01, and
at recovery, F(1, 35) 5 4.67, p < .05 (controlling for baseline
Because TNF-a production was sensitive to the social-eval-
uative nature of the stressor, we tested whether participants’
perceptions of being evaluated during the task were associated
with the changes in TNF-a production.2Across conditions,
greater perceptions of being evaluated significantly predicted
greater increases in TNF-a production, b 5 140, SE 5 50, p <
.01. In contrast, changes in TNF-a production were not pre-
dicted by other posttask cognitive appraisals—task difficulty:
b 5 4.30, SE 5 86.8, p > .20; effort expended: b 5 132,
task challenge: b 5 ?135.3, SE 5 104, p > .19; and perceived
performance: b 5 69, SE 5 111, p > .20. Furthermore, per-
ceptions of being evaluated remained a significant predictor of
increased TNF-a production when we controlled for each of the
other task appraisals (ps < .05). This suggests that changes in
TNF-a production may be driven by perceptions of social
evaluation, rather than by perceptions of effort, difficulty, con-
trollability, challenge, or performance.
Comparison of Posttask Appraisals in the Social-Evaluative
Threat (SET) and Non-SET Conditions
(n 5 19)
(n 5 20)
M SDM SD
Note. All ratings were made on 7-point scales. For evaluation by others, task
difficulty, and task challenge, 1 5 not at all and 7 5 very much; for effort, 1 5
tried hard and 7 5 didn’t try hard; for task controllability, 1 5 out of control
and 7 5 in control; and for performance, 1 5 very poorly and 7 5 very well.
aFor ‘‘others evaluated performance,’’ df 5 1, 36; for all other variables,
df 5 1, 37.
2These analyses were conducted using multilevel modeling, as this regres-
sion technique allowed continuous covariates (i.e., appraisals) as predictors of
the immunological changes. Time of assessment was the Level 1 factor (base-
line, posttask, recovery), and task appraisals were the Level 2 predictors.
Contrast coefficients compared the baseline (pretask) time point with the
posttask and recovery time points. Therefore, positive slopes (bs) represent
increases in TNF-a production from baseline to poststressor.
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Social-Evaluative Threat and Inflammatory Processes
Across all participants, there was a significant effect of hydro-
cortisone concentration on stimulated TNF-a production, F(3,
35) 5 23.30, p < .001; thus, the data showed the known sup-
pressive effects of glucocorticoids on proinflammatory cytokine
activity. As predicted, the Time ? Condition ? Hydrocortisone
Concentration interaction was significant, F(3, 34) 5 3.07, p <
.05; the suppressive effects of hydrocortisone varied by condi-
tion and time. To decompose this interaction, we examined the
effects of condition and hydrocortisone concentration on TNF-a
production separately for each time point.
At baseline, the Condition ? Hydrocortisone Concentration
interaction was not significant, F(3, 35) 5 1.02, p > .20; TNF-a
production across the different hydrocortisone concentrations
did not differ between the SETand non-SETconditions prior to
Concentration interaction was significant, F(3, 30) 5 3.73, p <
.05, controlling for baseline TNF-a production levels at the four
hydrocortisone concentrations (see Fig. 2). Post hoc analyses
revealed that TNF-a production was significantly greater in the
SET condition than in the non-SETcondition when hydrocorti-
sone was not added to the posttask samples (see the previous
section) and when the 10?8-mole hydrocortisone concentration
was used, F(1, 37) 5 5.48, p < .05; the difference between the
SET and non-SETconditions in TNF-a production approached
significance for the 10?7-mole hydrocortisone concentration,
F(1, 37) 5 3.26, p 5 .079. TNF-a production did not differ
between the SET and non-SET conditions at the highest
hydrocortisone concentration (10?6mole), F(1, 37) 5 0.05, p >
.20. These findings of higher levels of stimulated TNF-a pro-
duction in the SET condition suggest that sensitivity to the
suppressive effects of glucocorticoids on TNF-a production was
decreased in this condition relative to the non-SETcondition.
This study tested whether a social-evaluative stressor, a context
in which the self could be negatively judged by others, would
equivalent stressor without social evaluation. As predicted,
participants who performedspeech andmath tasksin front ofan
evaluative audience (SET condition) showed increases in pro-
duction of the proinflammatory cytokine TNF-a immediately
poststressor and after a 40-min recovery period. Participants
completing the same tasks alone in a room (non-SETcondition)
showed no changes in TNF-a; this flat, stable pattern is similar
to that observed under resting, nonstressful conditions (e.g.,
Edwards, Burns, Ring, & Carroll, 2006; O’Connor, Motivala,
Valladares, Olmstead, & Irwin, 2007). Additionally, the social-
evaluativecontext influenced the regulationoftheinflammatory
response. Cells from the participants in the SET condition
showed decreased sensitivity to the suppressive effects of glu-
cocorticoids compared with cells from the participants in the
non-SETcondition; this indicates that glucocorticoids were less
effective in reigning in the inflammatory response under SET.
Our manipulation was successful in inducing social-evalua-
tive threat in the SET condition while keeping other factors
(perceptions of effort, task difficulty, controllability, challenge,
and performance) comparable in the SET and non-SET condi-
tions. Participants in the two conditions also demonstrated
similar levels of arousal and task engagement, as indexed by
increases in cardiovascular parameters. Therefore, the pattern
betweenthe groupsand cannot be fullyexplainedby alternative
explanations (the SET condition was more difficult, required
more effort, etc.). This argument is further bolstered by our
Hydrocortisone Concentration (moles)
Fig. 2. Mean posttask tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) production in the
social-evaluative threat (SET) and non-SETconditions, for assays at four
hydrocortisone concentrations. The means have been adjusted for base-
line TNF-a production values. Error bars represent standard errors of
Time of Assessment
Fig. 1. Mean tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) production at baseline,
posttask, and 40-min recovery for participants in the social-evaluative
threat (SET) and non-SET conditions. Error bars represent standard
errors of the mean.
Volume ]]]—Number ]]
S.S. Dickerson et al.
activity, whereas this cytokine change was unrelated to other
cognitive appraisals (e.g., perceived difficulty, effort, and per-
formance). Our study addsto a growing literature demonstrating
that the social-evaluative cognitive and affective states experi-
enced under SET are associated with physiological changes
(Dickerson, Kemeny, et al., 2004; Dickerson et al., 2008;
Gruenewald et al., 2004); this association may reflect a coor-
dinated psychobiological response to this threat.
Our results demonstrate that in order to understand the con-
ditions capable of increasing proinflammatory cytokine activity
and regulating this response, researchers should consider the
social milieu of the stressors employed in laboratory research.
Recent meta-analyses have shown that, overall, acute psycho-
logical stressors can activate inflammatory pathways (Seger-
strom & Miller, 2004; Steptoe et al., 2007). However, there has
been variability in these effects; some studies have reported
increases in inflammatory activity, whereas others have not.
Examination of the social-evaluative context of stressors has
been fruitful for clarifying the specific conditions that can elicit
cortisol reactivity (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004); this approach
may also be useful for delineating stressors that trigger and
regulate inflammatory responses.
Our findings replicate and extend previous research with
nonhuman animals, which has demonstrated that social threats
increase proinflammatory cytokine production and other mark-
ers of inflammation and, further, can decrease the sensitivity of
immune cells to the suppressive effects of glucocorticoids (Av-
itsur et al., 2006). That work has also found that not all stressors
are capable of activating these immunoregulatory changes;
specific social threats (e.g., social subordination, defeat) induce
these responses, whereas other threats (e.g., physical restraint)
do not. Our findings are consistent with these results: Only the
SETcondition led to increases in proinflammatory activity and
altered the regulation of this process. Taken together, these
studies suggest that all stressors do not have uniform effects on
proinflammatory cytokine activity and regulation; instead,
changes in production and regulation may occur for a subset of
stressful conditions, including those that involve specific social
threats. These responses could be adaptive in initiating bio-
wound or infection following an antagonistic encounter), or to
reinforce functional behavioral strategies such as submission or
disengagement (Dickerson et al., 2009). Proinflammatory cyto-
kines have been shown to induce behavior consistent with a
disengaged motivational state (e.g., Dantzer, O’Connor, Freund,
Johnson, & Kelley, 2008), and disengagement could be an
adaptive response to relatively uncontrollable social threat.
Several limitations of this study warrant comment. First, all
the participants were women. It will be important for future
studies to determine the degree to which these findings gener-
alize to men, and, further, if there are gender differences in
immunoregulatory responses to SET versus non-SET contexts.
There is some evidence that, compared with men, women may
to SET (Rohleder et al., 2001), and this could be a mechanism
underlying gender differences in the incidence of inflammatory
disorders (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis).
Second, we did not test whether the increases in TNF-a pro-
duction observed under SETwere due to changes in the amount
ofcytokine produced orchanges inthenumbersofmonocytes or
immunoregulatory cells from baseline to posttask. Given that
is possible that the increase in TNF-a production from baseline
to posttask was due to an increase in the number of monocytes,
although a meta-analysis demonstrated that monocyte number
is typically unresponsive to acute psychological stressors
(Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). Research that also examines the
number of monocytes or evaluates the production of TNF-a at
the cellular level is needed to address these additional mech-
Third, the current study focused on one proinflammatory
proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines, and other
physiological systems, to further delineate the full pattern of
psychobiological changes that may be elicited or regulated by
This study compared a condition in which no observers were
present with a condition in which observers were both present
and negatively evaluating the participant’s performance.
Therefore, it is unclear whether the mere presence of others or
the social-evaluative component was responsible for eliciting
the immunological changes observed. However, previous work
has shown that explicit social evaluation, but not the mere
presence of others, triggers increases in cortisol (Dickerson
et al., 2008). Our finding that perceptions of being evaluated
correlated with increases inTNF-aalso supports the notion that
evaluation may have driven the proinflammatory changes.
Testing this experimentally will be an important next step. Ex-
amining factors that could heighten the impact of evaluation
would also programmatically extend this work.
Our results underscore the importance of considering the
social context in identifying conditions capable of eliciting and
regulating immunological responses. The vast majority of re-
search within health psychology has adopted a general ap-
proach, in regard to both eliciting conditions and the
physiological responses engendered. These findings highlight
cognitive processes in psychobiological research (Kemeny,
2003; Weiner, 1992).
Identifying the specific conditions that alter inflammatory
processes could have important implications for health. De-
creased glucocorticoid sensitivity could lead a proinflammatory
response to ‘‘overshoot’’: If stressors are frequent or prolonged,
sustained exposure to proinflammatory mediators could result.
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Social-Evaluative Threat and Inflammatory Processes
been linked to the initiation and progression of a number of
diseases, including cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthri-
tis, metabolic syndrome, and depression (e.g., Kronfol & Rem-
ick, 2000; Miller & Blackwell, 2006), as well as to mortality
(Harris et al., 1999). Understanding the specific social condi-
tions and accompanying cognitive-emotional processes that
elicit and prolong proinflammatory responses could help re-
searchers delineate the threats that, if chronically experienced,
could lead to negative health effects.
Acknowledgments—Funding for this study was provided by
the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and by the
General Clinical Research Center at the University of Califor-
nia, Los Angeles (National Institutes of Health/National Center
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(RECEIVED 10/24/08; REVISION ACCEPTED 2/6/09)
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