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Metadata of Note

Type: 🌰 Seed [Nomenclature present here.]

Source: Research Paper by Jeremy Jamieson

Tags: #stress #education #literaturereview

Date: June 11th, 2022


If you’d like to read a comprehensive introduction to stress and how it impacts your body, check out this article.



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 in 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 in the GRE-math section. These findings illuminate the powerful influence appraisal has on physiology and performance both in and out of the laboratory. (Page 1)

For several decades social psychologists have theorized that how one construes bodily responses, such as arousal, can affect behavior, emotions, and even performance (e.g., Niedenthal, 2007; Schacter & 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 bodily changes with external sensory information and situation-specific 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. (Page 2)


Sympathetic Nervous System

In a recent paper, examining the effects of reappraisal on cardiovascular responses, Mauss and colleagues (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. In an academic context, students, by default, seem to appraise arousal during a high-stakes test as an indication of anxiety that will be detrimental to performance (Johns, Inzlicht, & Schmader, 2008). Therefore, encouraging test-takers to reappraise arousal as a beneficial, promotive state may help break the association between arousal and anxiety, which should then improve performance. (Page 2)

Increased SNS activity has been associated with two distinct motivational states: challenge and threat (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000), with challenge states typically resulting in relatively greater SNS activation. Unlike threat, the challenge is also characterized by performance improvement, which is consistent with the strong linear relationship noted between catecholamine levels and cognitive performance (see Dienstbier, 1989). Challenge states have been routinely linked to better cognitive performance in a variety of domains including pattern-detection, cooperative games, and decision-making tasks (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999; Mendes, Major, McCoy, & Blascovich, 2008; Kassam, Koslov, & Mendes, in press). Thus, test-takers would presumably be at an advantage if they appraised arousal as a challenge signal, rather than a threat signal during test performance. (Page 2)


Attentional Bias

Markers of threat responses have also been linked to increased attention to threat-related information, such as angry faces or emotionally-negative words (e.g., Roelofs, Bakvis, Hermans, van Pelt & van Honk, 2007; van Honk, Verbaten, Tuiten, van der Hout, Koppeschaar, et al., 1999).

Functionally, a bias for threat-related information facilitates the detection of danger and helps individuals respond effectively to potential threats. However, attentional bias also elicits and maintains feelings of anxiety and has been linked to a host of clinical conditions, including panic disorder (e.g., McNally, Amir, Lourro, Lukach, Riemann, & Calamari, 1994), posttraumatic stress disorder (e.g., Kaspi, McNally, & Amir, 1995), social anxiety (e.g., Mathews & MacLeod, 2002; 2005), and suicidal behavior (Cha, Najmi, Park, Finn, & Nock, 2010) (Page 2)


Method of Study

  • Sixty students (31 male, 29 female) planning to take the GRE within 3 months were initially recruited and scheduled for a laboratory 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.1 Thus, 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 session. (Page 3)


  • Participants were initially scheduled for two lab visits on consecutive days. The first visit lasted less than 30 minutes and allowed us to obtain a saliva sample (T0) that indexed sAA levels on a control day. At the same time the following day, participants reported back to the lab for the practice GRE. This visit lasted 2.5 hours. On both days participants were instructed to refrain from caffeine and strenuous exercise for at least 2 hours prior to arrival. (Page 3)


  • 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.” (Page 3)
    • Although the cover story for the study ended here for control participants, those assigned to the reappraisal condition then heard/read: “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 concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. [I]f you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.” (Page 3)


  • We first examined if there were pre-existing differences between 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 baseline (T0 and T1) and found no differences, ps >.20. Finally, the order of the practice test sections did not influence the results. (Page 4)



  • Contrasts (Kirk, 1995) indicate that reappraisal participants performed significantly better (M = 738.57, 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 Figure 1). (Page 4)

  • Reappraisal led to a large increase in SNS activity immediately preceding testing, whereas the control condition showed no changes. This is consistent with the idea that challenge or approach states are characterized by greater SNS activation. (Page 4)


  • Reappraisal manipulation persisted over time. Compared to controls, reappraisal participants reported that arousal helped performance more, t (26) = 2.53, p = .018, d = .99; worried less about feeling anxious, 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. (Page 4)


  • GRE scores from participants’ ETS reports were 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 Figure 3, the appraisal manipulation had no effect on verbal performance, F < 1. However, reappraisal participants performed significantly better (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 (Page 5)



  • It may seem remarkable that a reappraisal manipulation given over a month before participants took the GRE was sufficient to improve performance. But similarly, a simple writing exercise intervention 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 manipulation (Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009). In the current research, our laboratory manipulation of arousal appraisal appeared to have lasting effects, both subjectively and behaviorally, one to three months after the manipulation. (Page 5)


  • In this study reappraising arousal improved math performance, but had no effect on verbal performance, nor was arousal associated with verbal scores in the control condition (p >.40). This lack of consistency may result from the characteristics of the problems found in each section. Math problems generally require test-takers to use executive resources to actively process and compute information, whereas the verbal section is dominated by problems (e.g. antonyms and analogies) requiring the retrieval of information from long-term storage with fewer active processing requirements (e.g., Halpern, 2004). Since research suggests that reappraising arousal improves executive functioning (Johns et al., 2008), it may not be surprising that appraisal improved only math performance (Page 5).


  • 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 effects of reappraisal of arousal on GRE performance. (Page 6)