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Utility of a Virtual Trier Social Stress Test: Initial Findings and Benchmarking Comparisons

Fallon, Monica A. MA; Careaga, Jesus Serrano BA; Sbarra, David A. PhD; O'Connor, Mary-Frances PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000338

Objective The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) is one of the most widely used laboratory-based acute psychosocial stressors. However, there may be advantages to conducting the TSST through the virtual world, including reducing the cost and burden (i.e., no need for colocation between the evaluators and participants). The virtual TSST might also increase the standardization between studies and provide the capacity to bring psychology experiments to more settings (e.g., the home, the magnetic resonance imaging scanner).

Methods Fifty undergraduate students participated in the TSST conducted through an online virtual reality program, using a computer screen and microphone/earphone headset.

Results The present study found that the virtual TSST produced a significant acute stress response, measured both through cortisol (F(1,128) = 31.91, p < .001) and subjective report (F(1,148) = 72.86, p < .001). In addition, this method differentially produced a dampened cortisol response (F(1,126) = 4.41, p < .04) in those who had experienced recent loss (e.g., bereavement, romantic breakup, homesickness), similar to prior research.

Conclusions Virtual reality–based administration of the TSST and other mental challenge protocols increases the possibilities of many standard psychological experiments relevant to biobehavioral research.

Supplemental digital content is available in the text.

From the Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

Supplemental Content

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Mary-Frances O'Connor, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, 1503 E. University Boulevard, Room 430, Tucson, AZ 85721. E-mail:

Received for publication July 13, 2015; revision received February 19, 2016.

Copyright © 2016 by American Psychosomatic Society
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