Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE.
ABSTRACT This research examined the benefits of interpreting physiological arousal as a challenge response on practice and actual Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Participants who were preparing to take the GRE reported to the laboratory for a practice GRE study. Participants assigned to a reappraisal condition were told arousal improves performance, whereas control participants were not given this information. We collected saliva samples at baseline and after the appraisal manipulation, which were then assayed for salivary alpha amylase (sAA), a measure of sympathetic nervous system activation. Reappraisal participants exhibited a significant increase in sAA and outperformed controls on the GRE-math section. One to three months later, participants returned to the lab and provided their score reports from their actual GRE. Again, reappraisal participants scored higher than controls on the GRE-math section. These findings illuminate the powerful influence appraisal has on physiology and performance both in and out of the laboratory.
Psychological Review 10/1962; 69:379-99. · 7.76 Impact Factor
Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves
performance on the GRE
Jeremy P. Jamiesona, Wendy Berry Mendesa,*, Erin Blackstocka, Toni Schmaderb
aDepartment of Psychology, Harvard University, United States
bDepartment of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Canada
a r t i c l ei n f o
Received 17 July 2009
Revised 20 August 2009
Available online 3 September 2009
Stress and performance
a b s t r a c t
This research examined the benefits of interpreting physiological arousal as a challenge response on prac-
tice and actual Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Participants who were preparing to take the
GRE reported to the laboratory for a practice GRE study. Participants assigned to a reappraisal condition
were told arousal improves performance, whereas control participants were not given this information.
We collected saliva samples at baseline and after the appraisal manipulation, which were then assayed
for salivary alpha amylase (sAA), a measure of sympathetic nervous system activation. Reappraisal par-
ticipants exhibited a significant increase in sAA and outperformed controls on the GRE-math section. One
to three months later, participants returned to the lab and provided their score reports from their actual
GRE. Again, reappraisal participants scored higher than controls on the GRE-math section. These findings
illuminate the powerful influence appraisal has on physiology and performance both in and out of the
? 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
‘‘Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything
that can be counted counts.” – Albert Einstein
Although high-stakes standardized tests, such as the SAT and
Graduate Record Examination (GRE), influence whether students
will be accepted to or rejected from desired academic programs,
the above quote illustrates the necessity of considering factors
other than aptitude and ability when evaluating standardized test
performance. For instance, test-takers may feel an increase in arou-
sal, or ‘‘nervous energy,” which may be interpreted as anxiety or
threat, and be associated with poor performance (Cassaday &
However, arousal is a fuzzy term semantically and psychologi-
cally (Blascovich, 1992). Arousal increases co-occur with a variety
of emotional, cognitive, and motivational states and do not neces-
sarily indicate a negative state such as anxiety or threat. Arousal
increases can also indicate that the body is mobilizing resources
to meet the task demands and could signal an approach orientation
or challenge response. Because of its association with both benign
and deleterious psychological and physiological states, arousal
has been at the center of several classic theories in social psychol-
ogy as the proposed mediator of behavioral outcomes. From social
facilitation to cognitive dissonance, arousal has been implicated in
both positive and negative performance outcomes and psycholog-
Forseveral decadessocial psychologists havetheorizedthathow
oneconstruesbodilyresponses, suchas arousal,can affectbehavior,
emotions, and even performance (e.g., Niedenthal, 2007; Schachter
& Singer, 1962) The notion that construal has important behavioral
consequences downstream is also consistent with contemporary
models of emotion like Gross’s (1998) emotion regulation model
and Barrett’s core affect theory (2006). In the latter theory, Barrett
and colleagues argue that the conceptualization process transforms
internal states into meaningful psychological states by integrating
cific knowledge. For example, high arousal might be interpreted as
fear or excitement depending on a variety of factors including
knowledge of the situation, context, and experience.
More specifically with regards to reappraisal, Gross argues that
appraisal processes occur early in the emotion-generative process,
and the downstream outcome (the experienced emotion) is most
easily altered by changing appraisals of the meaning of internal
states(Gross, 2002). In a recent paper examining the effects of reap-
praisal on cardiovascular responses, Mauss, Cook, Cheng, and Gross
(2007) found that participants high in reappraisal tendencies had
stronger sympathetic activation (i.e., interpreted as a challenge
response) during a mental arithmetic task combined with an anger
provocation than those low in reappraisal. They interpreted these
responses as reappraisal resulting in an adaptive affective profile.
0022-1031/$ - see front matter ? 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
* Corresponding author. Address: Harvard University, 33 Kirkland Street, WJH
1420, Cambridge, MA 02138, United States.
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org (W.B. Mendes), tschmader@psych.
ubc.ca (T. Schmader).
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 208–212
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jesp
In an academic context, students, by default, seem to appraise arou-
sal during a high-stakes test as an indication of anxiety that will be
detrimental for performance (Johns, Inzlicht, & Schmader, 2008).
cial, promotive state may help break the association between arou-
sal and anxiety, which should then improve performance.
Physiologically, arousal is associated with increases in sympa-
thetic nervous system (SNS) responses, which can be measured
by examining catecholamine levels. Increased SNS activity has
been associated with two distinct motivational states: challenge
and threat (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000), with challenge states typ-
ically resulting in relatively greater SNS activation. Unlike threat,
challenge is also characterized by performance improvement,
which is consistent with the strong linear relationship noted be-
tween catecholamine levels and cognitive performance (see
Dienstbier, 1989). Challenge states have been routinely linked to
better cognitive performance in a variety of domains including pat-
tern-detection, cooperative games, and decision-making tasks
(Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999; Kassam, Koslov, &
Mendes, in press; Mendes, Major, McCoy, & Blascovich, 2008).
Thus, test-takers would presumably be at an advantage if they ap-
praised arousal as a challenge signal, rather than a threat signal
during test performance.
In this research, appraisals of arousal were manipulated and
GRE performance was measured both in and outside the labora-
tory. sAA levels, a non-specific measure of SNS activation, were
measured prior to testing in the laboratory session. We expected
reappraisal participants to exhibit increased sAA levels (indexing
relatively more engagement and challenge orientation), as well
as better GRE performance, compared to controls. Then, if the ap-
praisal manipulation generalized to actual GRE testing situations,
the GRE scores of participants told to reappraise their arousal
should also exceed those of controls. Although some recent evi-
dence suggests that dispositional differences in reappraisal ten-
dencies predicts SNS activation and performance (Schmader,
Forbes, Zhang, & Mendes, 2009), no prior research has experimen-
tally manipulated appraisal processes to investigate the effects on
actual test performance. Such evidence is critical to advance our
understanding of causal mechanisms necessary to design success-
ful intervention strategies.
Sixty students (31 male, 29 female) planning to take the GRE
within 3 months were initially recruited and scheduled for a labo-
ratory session. Of these 60 participants, 28 (57% male) actually
took the GRE in the required time window and returned to the
lab for the follow-up session.1Thus, all participants in the final
sample were preparing to take the GRE, completed preparation
material, and took the GRE test within 3 months of the laboratory
Participants were initially scheduled for two lab visits on con-
secutive days. The first visit lasted less than 30 min and allowed
us to obtain a saliva sample (T0) that indexed sAA levels on a con-
trol day. At the same time the following day, participants reported
back to the lab for the practice GRE. This visit lasted 2.5 h. On both
days participants were instructed to refrain from caffeine and
strenuous exercise for at least 2 h prior to arrival. For the practice
GRE, we created a similar testing environment that participants
would experience during the actual GRE. Each participant was
seated at a computer, given scratch paper, and instructed to ‘‘try
as hard on today’s practice test as you will during the actual GRE.”
After consent and collection of the practice day saliva sample
(T1), participants received GRE test instructions, which included
the reappraisal manipulation. Participants in both conditions first
heard/read the following instructions:
‘‘The goal of this research is to examine how physiological arousal
during a test correlates with performance. Because it is normal for
people to feel anxious during standardized tests, the saliva samples
... will be analyzed for hormones that indicate your arousal level.”
Although the cover story for the study ended here for control
participants, those assigned to the reappraisal condition then
‘‘People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test
will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research
suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and
can even help performance... people who feel anxious during a test
might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel con-
cerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you
find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your
arousal could be helping you do well.”
After instructions, participants were given practice problems
and then completed quantitative and verbal sections from a GRE
practice test (each scored 200–800), with order counterbalanced.
Prior to testing, but after manipulations and practice problems,
we obtained a second saliva sample (T2) to assess SNS activation.2
After collection, saliva samples were stored in a ?80? C freezer un-
til they were sent on dry ice to Dresden, Germany. There they were
thawed and centrifuged at 3000 rpm for 5 min. Concentration of
sAA was measured by an enzyme kinetic method (a-amylase;
Participants reported back to the lab 1–3 months later. During
this visit participants provided a copy of their Educational Testing
Service (ETS) score report and completed GRE experience question-
naires, which assessed the amount of arousal experienced during
the testing session, whether participants believed arousal helped
or hurt performance, how much they worried about feeling anx-
ious, and how confident participants were of themselves during
testing, all on 7-point scales.
We first examined if there were pre-existing differences be-
tween our manipulated conditions. No differences emerged in
SAT scores or college GPA as a function of sex or appraisal,
ps > .40. We also examined sAA levels on the control day and base-
line (T0 and T1) and found no differences, ps > .20. Finally, order of
the practice test sections did not influence the results.
Practice GRE performance
GRE scores were analyzed in a 2 (appraisal: reappraisal vs. con-
trol) ? 2 (section: quantitative vs. verbal) ANOVA with appraisal as
1Our 50% attrition rate was due to participants who did not take the GRE during
the time allotted. We compared those who did take the GRE to those who did not and
there were many differences. For example, those who did not take the GRE compared
to those who did had lower GPAs, and practiced less for the GRE before the laboratory
session, ps < .05. However, importantly for this study, those who did take the GRE did
not differ on any of these dimensions by reappraisal condition.
2sAA peaks within minutes of an event. Thus, we timed T1 collection so that it was
constant across participants (Nater et al., 2005).
J.P. Jamieson et al./Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 208–212
a between subjects factor and section within subjects. We ob-
served a marginal Appraisal ? Section interaction, F(1, 26) = 3.30,
p = .081, d = .71. Contrasts (Kirk, 1995) indicate that reappraisal
SD = 66.43) than controls (M = 683.57, SD = 104.63) on the math
section, F(1, 26) = 4.35, p = .047, d = .82, whereas no differences
emerged on the verbal section, F < 1 (see Fig. 1). These data demon-
strate that participants told to reappraise arousal experienced per-
better(M = 738.57,
sAA reactivity was computed as a difference score: sAA levels
taken at T1 were subtracted from those measured at T2. As shown
in Fig. 2, reappraisal participants exhibited a significant increase in
sAAlevels(M = 24.86,
SD = 37.58)
(M = ?10.66, SD = 35.66), t(26) = 2.57, p = .016, d = 1.01. Further-
more, a related-samples t-test indicates that reappraisal partici-
pants’ sAA levels increased significantly from their baseline,
t(13) = 2.49, p = .027, d = .97 (95% CI = 10.94–38.78), whereas con-
trols showed a non-significant change, p > .25. Thus, reappraisal
led to a large increase in SNS activity immediately preceding test-
ing, whereas the control condition showed no changes. This is con-
sistent with the idea that challenge or approach states are
characterized by greater SNS activation.3We re-ran all analyses
controlling for individual differences in sAA using T0 levels, which
were obtained on the control day and less likely to be influenced by
pre-exam anxiety. All effects persisted.
We then examined the relationship between sAA reactivity and
performance for math and verbal sections separately. For control
participants, there was no association between sAA levels and per-
formance on either section, ps > .30. However, among those as-
signed to the reappraisal condition, increases in sAA were related
compared to controls
to better math performance, r = .57, p = .033. sAA levels were not
related to verbal scores in the reappraisal condition, p > .80.
Post GRE lab visit
We then examined participants’ experiences after taking the ac-
tual GRE (Table 1). These data suggested that the reappraisal
manipulation persisted over time. Compared to controls, reap-
praisal participants reported that arousal helped performance
more, t(26) = 2.53, p = .018, d = .99; worried less about feeling anx-
ious, t(26) = 1.70, p = .102, d = .67; and reported feeling less unsure
of themselves, t(25) = 2.46, p = .022, d = .97. Thus, the laboratory
manipulation generalized to the actual GRE testing session.
Actual GRE performance
GRE scores from participants’ ETS reports4were then analyzed.
An Appraisal ? Section interaction replicated the effect observed in
the laboratory, F (1,26) = 5.20, p = .031, d = .89. As shown in Fig. 3,
the appraisal manipulation had no effect on verbal performance,
F < 1. However, reappraisal participants performed significantly bet-
ter (M = 770.00, SD = 63.64) than controls on the math section
(M = 705.71, SD = 93.37), F(1,26) = 6.85, p = .015, d = 1.03. Thus, the
appraisal manipulation facilitated performance during actual GRE
testing. Moreover, sAA reactivity measured during the laboratory
session predicted appraisal participants actual GRE-math perfor-
mance (b = .492, p = .008) suggesting that participants with the
greatest activation to the reappraisal manipulation in the lab may
have also had the largest SNS activation during the actual testing sit-
uation, thus reaping the greatest benefits from the reappraisal
Fig. 1. Practice GRE performance as a function of appraisal condition and test
section. Scores could range from 200 to 800. Error bars represent ± standard error of
Fig. 2. Salivary alpha amylase (sAA) reactivity in response to the appraisal
manipulation. Positive values indicate an increase in sAA levels from baseline to
post appraisal manipulation. Error bars represent ± standard error of the mean.
3The absence of a significant sAA reactivity effect in the control condition suggests
that these participants were either less engaged or threatened relative to reappraisal
participants. sAA reactivity, alone, is not sufficient to differentiate between these two
4We also analyzed percentile scores because the percentile rank corresponding to
raw GRE score varies from test to test. Analysis of percentiles did not impact the
results in any way.
J.P. Jamieson et al./Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 208–212
We re-ran all performance analyses using available covariates
of academic performance (SAT, GPA, prior coursework, time spent
studying for the GRE), and the effects of reappraisal persisted with
these covariates. Furthermore, the length of time between the lab-
oratory session and actual GRE testing did not moderate these
This study examined the effect of reappraising arousal as a chal-
lenge response on GRE performance both in the laboratory and in
actual testing situations. During the laboratory session, partici-
pants who were instructed that arousal signaled good performance
exhibited elevated catecholamine levels and performed better on
the GRE-math section compared to controls. The data from the ac-
tual GRE test replicated the pattern of performance produced in the
laboratory, suggesting that manipulations of reappraisal can gener-
alize outside of the laboratory to real-world testing situations and
influence test-takers’ scores.
It may seem remarkable that a reappraisal manipulation given
over a month before participants took the GRE was sufficient to im-
prove performance. But similarly, a simple writing exercise inter-
vention given at the start of an academic term improved final
grades by 40% (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006), and persisted
to benefit grade point averages two years after the initial manipu-
lation (Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009).
In the current research, our laboratory manipulation of arousal ap-
praisal appeared to have lasting effects, both subjectively and
behaviorally, one to three months after the manipulation.
In this study reappraising arousal improved math performance,
but had no effect on verbal performance, nor was arousal associ-
ated with verbal scores in the control condition (p > .40). This lack
of consistency may result from characteristics of the problems
found in each section. Math problems generally require test-takers
to use executive resources to actively process and compute infor-
mation, whereas the verbal section is dominated by problems
(e.g., antonyms and analogies) requiring the retrieval of informa-
tion from long-term storage with fewer active processing require-
reappraising arousal improves executive functioning (Johns et al.,
2008), it may not be surprising that appraisal improved only math
performance. Additionally, our reappraisal manipulation could
have facilitated performance on the math, but not the verbal, sec-
tion because students tend to exhibit more negative implicit atti-
tudes toward math domains relative to verbal domains (Nosek,
Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002).
Importantly, our findings are consistent with previous work on
the effects of SNS activation, specifically catecholamine reactivity,
on cognitive performance. Across several large scale studies, great-
er catecholamine increases were associated with better task per-
formance (see Dienstbier (1989) for a review). Indeed, in
Dienstbier’s seminal review he concluded that ‘‘despite the high
difficulty level of ... these tasks ... these data indicate no curvilin-
ear relations; naturally evoked peripheral catecholamines never
seem to be too high for optimal performance” (italics added, p. 86).
Although this research demonstrates that reappraisal improves
math performance beyond the laboratory, the naturalistic setting
makes it difficult to isolate mechanisms. On the one hand, apprai-
sal might have improved performance by increasing study time if
arousal cued an approach orientation towards the test, rather than
remembered and reinterpreted the arousal they were feeling on
the day of the actual GRE test. Future research may seek to specify
In sum, these findings show that people’s appraisals of their
internal states are flexible. As such, the manner in which internal
states are interpreted can have profound effects on emotions,
physiology, and behavior. In this research, we focused on the ef-
fects of reappraisal of arousal on GRE performance. However, the
data presented here can be applied beyond standardized testing.
For instance, if students construe criticism from professors as con-
structive (challenge) rather than derisive (threat), it could help im-
prove performance. Thus,this
physiology and behavior may be strongly dependent on our cogni-
tive appraisals of internal states.
Since researchsuggests that
We thank Modupe Akinola and Kristen Lindquist for their help-
ful comments. This research was funded in part by an NHLBIGrant
(RO1 HL079383) (WBM) and an NIMH Grant (R01 MH071749) (TS).
Barrett, L. F. (2006). Solving the emotion paradox: Categorization and the
experience of emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 20–46.
Blascovich, J. (1992). A biopsychsocial approach to arousal regulation. Journal of
Social and Clinical Psychology, 11, 213–237.
Fig. 3. Actual GRE performance as a function of appraisal condition and test section.
Scores could range from 200 to 800. Error bars represent ± standard error of the
Responses to GRE test experience questionnaire items taken after participants
completed the actual GRE test (7-point scale).
Questionnaire item Appraisal condition
Reappraisal No appraisal
Does arousal help performance? 3.86a
Were you worried about feeling anxious? 2.46a
Were you unsure of your performance?2.75a
Note: Different subscript letters indicate significant mean differences within the
J.P. Jamieson et al./Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 208–212
Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2000). Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of
affective cues. In J. Forgas (Ed.), Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social
cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S. B., & Salomon, L. (1999). Social ‘‘facilitation”
as challenge and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 68–77.
Cassaday, J. C., & Johnson, R. E. (2002). Cognitive test anxiety and academic
performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 270–295.
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial
achievement gap: A social–psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307–1310.
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski (2009). Recursive
processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement
gap. Science, 324, 400–403.
Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for
mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96, 84–100.
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review.
Review of General Psychology, 2, 271–299.
Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences.
Psychophysiology, 39, 281–291.
Halpern, D. F. (2004). A cognitive-process taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive
abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 135–139.
Johns, M., Inzlicht, M., & Schmader, T. (2008). Stereotype threat and executive
resource depletion: Examining the influence of emotion regulation. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: General, 137, 691–705.
Kassam, K. S., Koslov, K., & Mendes, W. B. (in press). Decisions under distress: Stress
profiles influence anchoring and adjustment. Psychological Science.
Kirk, R. (1995). Experimental design. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing
Mauss, I., Cook, C. L., Cheng, Y. J., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Individual differences in
cognitive reappraisal experiential and physiological responses to anger
provocation. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 66, 116–124.
Mendes, W. B., Major, B., McCoy, S., & Blascovich, J. (2008). How attributional
ambiguity shapes physiological and emotional responses to social rejection and
acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 278–291.
Nater, U. M., Rohleder, N., Gaab, J., Berger, S., Jud, A., Kirschbaum, C., et al. (2005).
Human salivary alpha-amylase reactivity in a psychosocial stress paradigm.
International Journal of Psychophysiology, 55, 333–342.
Niedenthal, P. M. (2007). Embodying emotion. Science, 316, 1002–1005.
Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). Math = male, me =
female, therefore math – me. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83,
Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of
emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379–399.
Schmader, T., Forbes, C. E., Zhang, S., & Mendes, W. B. (2009). A metacognitive
perspective on the cognitive deficits experienced in intellectually threatening
environments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 584–596.
J.P. Jamieson et al./Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 208–212