Acute threat to the social self: shame, social self-esteem, and cortisol activity

Psychosom Med. 2004 Nov-Dec;66(6):915-24. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000143639.61693.ef.


Objective: Our Social Self Preservation Theory asserts that situations which threaten the "social self" (ie, one's social value or standing) elicit increased feelings of low social worth (eg, shame), decrements in social self-esteem, and increases in cortisol, a hormone released by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. To test our theoretical premise, cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to the performance of laboratory stressor tasks were compared in participants who performed these tasks in the presence or absence of social-self threat.

Methods: Pre- and poststressor emotion, self-esteem, heart rate, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol were compared in 81 participants randomly assigned to complete speech and mental arithmetic stress tasks with social evaluation present (n = 41) or absent (n = 40).

Results: As hypothesized, participants in the social evaluation condition exhibited greater increases in shame and greater decrements in social self-esteem. Other psychological states (eg, anxiety, performance self-esteem) did not show differential changes as a function of the social context. Salivary cortisol increased in social evaluation condition participants but did not increase in participants who performed the same tasks in the absence of social evaluation. Cortisol increases were greater in participants who experienced greater increases in shame and greater decreases in social self-esteem under social-self threat.

Conclusion: Threat to the social self is an important elicitor of shame experience, decreases in social self-esteem and cortisol increases under demanding performance conditions. Cortisol changes may be specifically tied to the experience of emotions and cognitions reflecting low self-worth in this context.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Male
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Self Concept*
  • Shame*
  • Social Adjustment
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis


  • Hydrocortisone