Mediators of compassionate goal intervention effects on human neuroendocrine responses to the Trier Social Stress Test


Objectives: The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is thought to mediate the effects of stress on illness. Research has identified a limited number of psychological variables that modulate human HPA responses to stressors (e.g. perceived control and social support). Prosocial goals can reduce subjective stress, but have not been carefully examined in experimental settings where pathways of impact on biological stress markers may be traced. Recent work demonstrated that coaching individuals to strive to help others reduced HPA responses to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) relative to other cognitive interventions. However, identification of mediational pathways, which were not examined in the original study, is necessary to determine whether the HPA buffering effects were due to helping motivations (compassionate goals; CGs) rather than via previously identified variables such as control or support. Methods: In this new analysis, we combined the original cortisol data with novel observer ratings of interpersonal behavior and psychological variables during the stress task, and conducted new, theory-driven analyses to determine psychological mediators for the intervention’s effect on cortisol responses (N = 54; 21 females, 33 males; 486 cortisol samples). Results: Control, support, and task ego-threat failed to account for the effects of the intervention. As hypothesized, self and observer-rated CGs, as well as observer-rated perceptions of participants’ interpersonal behavior as morally desirable (but not as dominant or affiliative) were significant mediators of neuroendocrine responses. Conclusions: The findings suggest that stress-reduction interventions based on prosocial behavior should target particular motivational and interpersonal features.