Stressful Situation

June 1, 2008

In the spring of 2006, Duke researcher Laura Smart Richman and graduate student Charles Jonassaint were working on a pilot study measuring people's physiological reaction to stress.

One day, Jonassaint A.M. '06 came into Richman's office and sank into a chair.

"The study isn't working anymore," he said.

"What do you mean?" Richman asked.

Jonassaint told her that the subjects' "reactivity"-the up-and-down movement of their stress levels-had suddenly stopped. He wondered whether they would have to end the experiment.

Now a fifth-year Ph.D. student in psychology, Jonassaint had spent months designing the study, which examined whether a strong sense of racial identity protected people from the effects of stress.

The participants-thirty-three black Duke undergraduates-were divided into two groups. One group watched a video with positive images of African-Americans such as Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. The other group watched footage of a Duke basketball game with images of students cheering. The videos were intended to "activate" different parts of the subjects' identities. After watching the videos, each student was asked to prepare and give a five-minute speech.

Throughout the speech, the subjects' saliva was tested for cortisol, a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that increases when people experience stress. Typically, cortisol levels went up and down during the experiment: They began high when the students walked in, then fell, then shot up again during the speeches, then finally sank as the subjects relaxed afterward.

But suddenly that movement had stopped. The subjects were coming in with high stress levels, and the levels were staying high.

Jonassaint had a theory about why this was happening-that the high stress levels were a response to the highly publicized rape accusations leveled by a black woman against white members of the Duke lacrosse team. The players were eventually exonerated, but at the time of the experiment, the case was surrounded with negative racial and gender overtones.

"When he said this, bells went off," says Richman, assistant research professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience. Her research focuses on how perceptions of discrimination affect individuals' physiological, motivational, and emotional processes. Although affected by many variables, a perception of discrimination has been found to be a factor in wide-ranging health disparities between white and black Americans.

But researchers are less certain exactly how and why the perceptions lead to physical changes. Far from stopping the study, Richman told Jonassaint she wanted to keep it going and document what was happening.

Previous studies found that individuals with a strong sense of racial identity suffer less from the health effects of discrimination, perhaps because they feel they have more social support during stressful times.

Richman and Jonassaint began analyzing their data in new ways, dividing the participants into pre- and post- "incident" groups, using April 3, 2006-roughly when news about the accusations began to dominate the local headlines-as the dividing line.

The new analyses confirmed Jonassaint's theory: The post-incident group had higher levels of cortisol, with very little change during the experiment. While the pre-incident group had a baseline reading of 4.6 nanograms per milliliter that jumped to 6.0 during the videos of speeches, the level for the post-incident group hovered higher, at around 7.1.

The effects were most pronounced for women, and students who watched the racial-identity video no longer showed results indicating that the video ameliorated the effects of stress.