The stress–response-dampening effects of placebo
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This experiment used both biological and self-report measures to examine how alcohol modifies stress responses, and to test whether the interaction between these two factors alters risk-taking in healthy young adults. Participants were divided into stress or no-stress conditions and then further divided into one of three beverage groups. The alcohol group consumed a binge-drinking level of alcohol; the placebo group consumed soda, but believed they were consuming alcohol; the sober group was aware that they were not consuming alcohol. Following beverage consumption, the stress group was subjected to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) while the no-stress group completed crossword puzzles; all participants subsequently completed a computerized risk-taking task. Exposure to the TSST significantly increased salivary levels of the hormone cortisol and the enzyme alpha-amylase, as well as subjective self-ratings of anxiety and tension. In the stress condition, both placebo and intoxicated groups reported less tension and anxiety, and exhibited a smaller increase in cortisol, following the TSST than did the sober group. Thus, the expectation of receiving alcohol altered subjective and physiological responses to the stressor. Neither alcohol nor stress increased risk taking, however the sober group demonstrated lower risk-taking on the computer task on the second session. These findings clearly demonstrate that the expectation of alcohol (placebo) alters subsequent physiological responses to stress.
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