The effects of race-related stress on cortisol reactivity in the laboratory: implications of the Duke lacrosse scandal

Ann Behav Med. 2008 Feb;35(1):105-10. doi: 10.1007/s12160-007-9013-8. Epub 2008 Feb 12.


Background: The experience of race-related stressors is associated with physiological stress responses. However, much is unknown still about the complex relationship between how race-related stressors are perceived and experienced and potential moderators such as strength of racial identity.

Purpose: This research examines the impact of a real-life stressor and strength of race identity on physiological responses to a social evaluative threat induced in the laboratory.

Methods: Salivary cortisol measures were collected throughout a stressor protocol. African-American participants were also randomized to one of two conditions designed to promote either racial identification or student identification, before the experimental task. Unexpectedly, a highly publicized real-life racial stressor, the Duke Lacrosse (LaX) scandal, occurred during the course of the data collection. This allowed for pre-post LaX comparisons to be made on cortisol levels.

Results: These comparisons showed that across both priming conditions, participants post-LaX had highly elevated cortisol levels that were nonresponsive to the experimental stress task, while their pre-LaX counterparts had lower cortisol levels that exhibited a normal stress response pattern. Furthermore, this effect of LaX was significantly moderated by gender, with women having lower mean cortisol levels pre-LaX but significantly greater cortisol levels than all other groups post-LaX.

Conclusions: These results suggest that recent exposure to race-related stress can have a sustained impact on physiological stress responses for African Americans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Black or African American / psychology*
  • Ethnicity / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Prejudice*
  • Racquet Sports
  • Reference Values
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Self Concept
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Environment
  • Social Identification*
  • Stress, Psychological / ethnology*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism


  • Hydrocortisone