Social-evaluative threat and proinflammatory cytokine regulation: an experimental laboratory investigation

Psychol Sci. 2009 Oct;20(10):1237-44. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02437.x. Epub 2009 Sep 14.


This study experimentally tested whether a stressor characterized by social-evaluative threat (SET), a context in which the self can be judged negatively by others, would elicit increases in proinflammatory cytokine activity and alter the regulation of this response. This hypothesis was derived in part from research on immunological responses to social threat in nonhuman animals. Healthy female participants were assigned to perform a speech and a math task in the presence or absence of an evaluative audience (SET or non-SET, respectively). As hypothesized, stimulated production of the proinflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) increased from baseline to poststressor in the SET condition, but was unchanged in the non-SET condition. Further, the increases in TNF-alpha production correlated with participants' cognitive appraisals of being evaluated. Additionally, the ability of glucocorticoids to shut down the inflammatory response was decreased in the SET condition. These findings underscore the importance of social evaluation as a threat capable of eliciting proinflammatory cytokine activity and altering its regulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cytokines / blood
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Mathematics
  • Self Concept*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Speech
  • Stress, Psychological / blood*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / blood*
  • Young Adult


  • Cytokines
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha