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Acute Threat to the Social Self: Shame, Social Self-esteem, and Cortisol Activity

Gruenewald, Tara L. PhD; Kemeny, Margaret E. PhD; Aziz, Najib MD; Fahey, John L. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000143639.61693.ef
Original Articles

Objective: Our Social Self Preservation Theory asserts that situations which threaten the “social self” (ie, one’s social value or standing) elicit increased feelings of low social worth (eg, shame), decrements in social self-esteem, and increases in cortisol, a hormone released by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. To test our theoretical premise, cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to the performance of laboratory stressor tasks were compared in participants who performed these tasks in the presence or absence of social-self threat.

Methods: Pre- and poststressor emotion, self-esteem, heart rate, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol were compared in 81 participants randomly assigned to complete speech and mental arithmetic stress tasks with social evaluation present (n = 41) or absent (n = 40).

Results: As hypothesized, participants in the social evaluation condition exhibited greater increases in shame and greater decrements in social self-esteem. Other psychological states (eg, anxiety, performance self-esteem) did not show differential changes as a function of the social context. Salivary cortisol increased in social evaluation condition participants but did not increase in participants who performed the same tasks in the absence of social evaluation. Cortisol increases were greater in participants who experienced greater increases in shame and greater decreases in social self-esteem under social-self threat.

Conclusion: Threat to the social self is an important elicitor of shame experience, decreases in social self-esteem and cortisol increases under demanding performance conditions. Cortisol changes may be specifically tied to the experience of emotions and cognitions reflecting low self-worth in this context.

DBP = diastolic blood pressure; SBP = systolic blood pressure; HR = heart rate; SOC-EVAL = social evaluation condition; NON-EVAL = non-evaluation condition; ABS = Affect Balance Scale; SSGS = State Shame and Guilt Scale

From the University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA (T.L.G., N.A., J.L.F.); and the University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA (M.E.K.).

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Tara L. Gruenewald, Department of Medicine/Geriatrics, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, 10945 LeConte Ave, Suite 2339, Los Angeles, CA, 90095-1687. E-mail: or

Received for publication December 23, 2003; revision received June 12, 2004.

This research was supported by a National Research Service Award (MH12703) from the National Institute of Mental Health, an American Psychological Association Dissertation Research Award, a Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Grants-In-Aid Award, and a UCLA Graduate Division Dissertation Research Award supporting the first author.

Tara L. Gruenewald is currently in the Department of Medicine/Geriatrics, Najib Aziz is in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and John L. Fahey is in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles. Margaret E. Kemeny is in the Health Psychology Program at the University of California, San Francisco.

Copyright © 2004 by American Psychosomatic Society
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