The Social Context

In the 1990s, as the notion of "social-psychophysiological" research — studying the nature of social interactions in the psychophys-iological laboratory — took hold, several studies addressed the question of the mechanisms by which "social support," which has been shown to have a substantive effect on morbidity and mortality, might operate to achieve this effect. The main thrust of the research was that the subject was exposed to stress, but in some conditions was alone and in others, was accompanied by a friend or a friendly research confederate. In general, the studies showed that when evaluation apprehension was not at issue (see next section), the presence of a supportive, friendly person had an attenuating effect on blood pressure and cortisol responsivity. In some of these studies, social support was manipulated by having the experimenter behave in a friendly manner — making appropriate eye contact, nodding in agreement as the subject spoke, murmuring "mm-hmm" at intervals; compared with a condition in which the experimenter was unresponsive, did not make eye contact, and gave little or no friendly feedback (Christenfeld et al, 1997). Again, these studies showed that the "support" condition reduced the cardiovascular response. Although blood pressure cannot be used as a simple measure of emotional or stress-induced activation, it certainly is an indicator; thus, although the outcomes might be different, the cardiovascular effects shown in these studies suggest that other outcome parameters may be similarly affected.

In many laboratories, such behaviors are now routinely scripted and controlled, and research assistants are carefully trained to act in a "clinical" manner, that is, one that is not overly friendly or sympathetic, nor hostile and unsympathetic. It is especially important to train research assistants to understand that their own likes and dislikes, prejudices, or bad or good moods must not be allowed to influence the manner of interaction with a particular research subject.

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