SPOILER ALERT! ~ Social stress is threat to one’s social image, because it involves being judged. Examples are conversations, public speaking, job interviews, tests, etc... ~ When we feel threatened, we don’t interact well with others, because we cannot anticipate the other person’s reaction very well and we cannot read the other person’s emotion as well as we normally do. ~ When we feel threatened socially, we cannot think fast ~ When we feel threatened socially, we tend to befriend other people more easily, but we are not necessarily more altruistic. ~ Social stress is reduced when we have support from a loved one (especially for men), we belong to a group, and we don’t have a low social status.
Threats to one’s social image trigger a stress response that includes elevations in cortisol levels as well as neuropsychological impairments such as difficulties with memory, problem solving, and spatial motor coordination. These negative effects are often reduced with social status, social support and even just the knowledge of belonging to a social group.
Social Support reduces stress caused by social threats
A paradigm for social threat that is often used in biopsychological stress research is the Trier Social Stress Test (TSS test). It involves participants standing in front of two raters and doing a mock job interview. The social evaluative component of this test is expressed in the rating aspect of it, which involves rating the participant after the mock interview.
The TSS test reliably activates the brain stress axis consisting of the hypothalamus, and the pituitary and adrenal glands, which together are responsible for the release of the stress hormone cortisol and other metabolic changes (e.g., increased heartbeats, sweating, etc…). Incidentally, that is remarkable since this test has no consequences in real life.
Results on the effects of social support on social stress (induced with the TSS test) indicate that men benefit more from social support than women do. Furthermore, support from their romantic partner tends to be more effective at reducing cortisol levels in men than support from a stranger.
In addition, the presence of the hormone oxytocin magnifies the buffering effects of social support against social threat. Notably, participants who received both an injection of oxytocin and social support have the lowest cortisol levels after the test than the other participants who had only social support.
An interesting finding is that which shows that observing the participants going through the stress of the test also causes increased stress in the observer. Indeed, the observer’s cortisol levels reflect that of the participant, which suggests that the simple act of watching someone stressed is also a trigger for the release of cortisol in the observer. This effect is further enhanced among individuals who have high empathy traits.
Social threat affects social interactions
Threats to our social image also influence how we interact with other people. Being able to identify another person’s emotional states and accurately interpret body language are necessary skills for an effective communication, and this ability can be impacted by stress.
For example, after taking the TSS test, men with high cortisol levels are better at identifying the emotional state of another person than those with low cortisol levels. By contrast, women with low cortisol levels perform better at that task than those with high cortisol levels.
Stress can also impair strategic reasoning and our ability to anticipate what another person is going to do. For example, stressed participants take longer to learn and understand a game of strategy. Furthermore, men with high cortisol levels show poor strategic reasoning compared to their low cortisol counterparts.
In a similar vein, men who are socially threatened cannot accurately remember the names associated with faces, which suggests deficits in memory for social information. More noteworthy is the result indicating that both men and women subjected to social stress (i.e., high cortisol levels) exhibit prosocial behavior, which means that they tend to befriend other people more easily, showing more care and trust. However, they tend to be less altruistic.
Those findings have relevant implications for coping with social stress since social threats affect the very social abilities that are helpful to cope with that threat. They also resonate with anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety, by expanding our understanding of the disorder.
Frisch, J. U., Häusser, J. A., & Mojzisch, A. (2015). The Trier Social Stress Test as a paradigm to study how people respond to threat in social interactions. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00014