Objective: Although previous research provides evidence for the role of rewarding activities in reducing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to stress, no studies have tested whether rewards can buffer cortisol responses in humans undergoing social stressors.
Method: This study experimentally investigated whether viewing appetitive rewarding pictures reduces cortisol responses to an acute stress challenge. Fifty-four heterosexual men were randomly assigned to view either mildly erotic (reward) or neutral images (control) of mixed-sex couples before completing the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST).
Results: Participants in the reward condition had significantly lower area-under-the-curve cortisol reactivity to the TSST (mean [M] = 363.46) in comparison with participants in the control group (M = 807.06; F(1,46) = 4.84, p = .033, η(2) = 0.095). Reward participants also had improved cognitive performance on the math portion of the TSST (M = 20.74) in comparison with control participants (M = 13.82; F(44) = 5.44, p = .024, η(2) = 0.11). The stress-buffering effects of reward were specific to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis reactivity: the reward and control groups did not differ on psychological perceptions of anticipatory or poststress perceptions, heart rate, or blood pressure responses.
Conclusions: This research provides the first evidence linking the experience of reward with reduced stress reactivity in humans and suggests a potential novel reward pathway for coping under stress.
Keywords: HPA axis; Trier Social Stress Test; reward; stress.