Physiological stress reactivity and empathy following social exclusion: a test of the defensive emotional analgesia hypothesis

Soc Neurosci. 2014;9(5):504-13. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2014.929533. Epub 2014 Jun 16.


Experiences of social exclusion elicit social pain responses. The current study examined the ability of social exclusion to activate physiological stress responses and adaptively modulate affect and empathy consistent with "defensive emotional analgesia." Measures of affect and empathy, and saliva samples for cortisol and alpha-amylase (sAA) analysis, were collected before and after subjects participated in a computer game ("Cyberball") designed to manipulate feelings of social exclusion. Contrary to our hypotheses, social exclusion was associated with a reduction in cortisol, and social inclusion with an increase in cortisol. Both Cyberball groups showed increases in sAA and decreases in both positive and negative affect, with the greatest drop in affect occurring after social exclusion. Empathy did not differ between the social exclusion and inclusion groups and was not correlated with cortisol or sAA levels. These results support the presence of a defensive response to social exclusion in which central stress pathways controlling cortisol release are inhibited. Cortisol and sAA were shown to have distinct patterns of responses to psychological stress, with sAA responding more rapidly. Related methodological concerns for the use of these physiological stress markers and of Cyberball in social neuroscience research are discussed.

Keywords: Alpha-amylase; Cortisol; Cyberball; Empathy; Social exclusion.

MeSH terms

  • Affect / physiology
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychological Distance*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Video Games
  • Young Adult
  • alpha-Amylases / metabolism


  • alpha-Amylases
  • Hydrocortisone