Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Lack of understanding of the mental state of others may govern poor social interactions and, the etiology and maintenance of several mental health conditions. In everyday situations, verbal and non-verbal affective stimuli are often processed under conditions of acute stress. Acute stress is associated with changes in cognition, affect, behavior and neural functioning; however, previous research has not sufficiently identified the role of acute stress on emotion recognition (ER) from body movements. The current study explored the effects of acute stress and related physiological responses on ER of dynamic body movements. Eighty-Four participants were exposed to an acute stress procedure or a control condition before they were administered an ER task with angry, happy and neutral emotional stimuli to recognize. In addition, physiological measures such as cortisol and skin conductance were collected during baseline, exposure and post-stress conditions. Based on cortisol response 20 minutes after stress induction participants were categorized into cortisol responders (15.5% or more increase in cortisol values from baseline to exposure) and non-responders (less than 15.5% increase). The hypothesis that angry stimuli would be more accurately recognized under acute stress was only partially supported as a statistical trend. There are no significant difference in the ER for happy or neutral emotions between the stress groups. Cortisol responder status was associated with a decline in ER accuracy specific to neutral stimuli, which may highlight the existence of overlapping neural mechanisms involved in stress and ER. In addition, female cortisol responders misattributed neutral stimuli as happy significantly more than controls and non-responders. These results provide preliminary evidence for hypothesis that stress and physiological stress responses influence ER in varying degrees based on the properties of the emotions. Implications and future directions are discussed.