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The distinction between challenge and threat appraisals

Dr. Simon Moss

Overview

The biophysical model of challenge and threat was developed by Blascovich and Tomaka (1996& see also Blascovich & Mendes, 2000& Mendes, Blascovich, Lickel, & Hunter,2002& Mendes, Blascovich, Major, & Seery, 2001& Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey, & Leitten, 1993& Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997). According to this model, which represents an extension to the concept of physiological toughness (Dienstbier, 1989& see Physiological toughness), individuals tend to appraise demanding or difficult events as challenging or threatening. If an event is appraised as challenging, blood pressure does not rise, and performance is often proficient. If an event is appraised as threatening, blood pressure does often rise, and performance tends to decline.

Specifically, individuals experience a sense of challenge when they feel they can access the necessary resources?-the skills, the knowledge, the effort, and the materials?-to fulfill their demands. When this state prevails, the sympathetic nervous system accelerates cardiac activity, but the adrenaline dilates vessels, and hence blood pressure remains relatively constant. The physiological response resembles the pattern of reactions that are evoked by aerobic exercise. Motives to approach, rather than avoid, also prevail.

Individuals experience a sense of threat when they do not feel they can access the necessary resources to fulfill their demands. When this state emerges, the sympathetic nervous system again accelerates cardiac activity. Nevertheless, in this instance, the adrenal medullar is inhibited, the release of adrenaline diminishes, and hence vessels are not dilated. Blood pressure rises.

Key assumptions

Evaluation of demands

According to this biophysical model, individuals need to assess the demands of some context as well as ascertain whether they can accommodate these demands (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000). Three factors determine the perceived demands of some event: the effort that needs to be mobilized, the uncertainty of this context, and the level of danger or hazards. Nevertheless, as Kirby and Wright (2003) highlight, the association between these factors and perceived demands has not been characterized definitively. Similarly, which forms of uncertainty increase demand has not been ascertained definitively. These definitions of demand, thus, might warrant clarification.

Kirby and Wright (2003) also highlight that classical definitions of challenging situations do not seem to align with the definition that resources exceeds or approximates demands. Instead, individuals seem to experience this sense of challenge when they strive to achieve uncertain rather than certain success. They do not experience this sense of challenge when they primarily attempt to avert harm. These definitions do not align to the proposition that challenge represents the perception that resources exceeds demand.

Similarly, according to Kirby and Wright (2003), demands and resources cannot be assessed on the same metric. Thus, whether demands exceed resources cannot be computed. Admittedly, demands partly depend on effort--and whether individuals can mobilize the requisite effort could, in principle, be estimated. However, demands also depends on uncertainty and danger& the corresponding resources cannot be readily computed.

Characteristics of threatening and challenging settings

As this model assumes, individuals experience a sense of challenge when their perceived resources, or capacity to cope, exceeds or at least approximates (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000) the demands of some situation. Individuals experience a sense of threat when their perceived resources are inadequate to accommodate the demands. Nevertheless, the precise conditions in which either of these states is experienced remains contentious.

To illustrate, individuals tend to experience either challenge or demand if the event or context could affect their wellbeing or progress (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000). Alternatively, individuals experience challenge or demand if the event or context could influence their self worth (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Lickel, 2000). In addition, individuals experience challenge or demand if the event or context is public rather than private--because the presence of anyone else amplifies the perceived importance of this task (e.g., Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999). All of these conditions ensure the goals seem relevant.

Furthermore, these states can be evoked if the context involves some form of evaluation, either by the individuals themselves or by someone else (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000). Thus, taken together, both goal relevance and evaluation can evoke either challenge or threat.

Nevertheless, as proponents of this model concede, precisely which situations entail evaluation is not always obvious. According to Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, and Lickel (2000), for example, individuals do not feel they are evaluated--and hence do not experience a sense of challenge--if their resources inordinately exceed the demands. A chess expert playing novice, for example, would not experience this challenge. Challenge, thus, is evoked only if resources marginally or moderately, rather than appreciably and dramatically, exceed demands.

Physiological responses to challenge and threat

A variety of physiological indicators differentiate challenge and threat. First, threat tends to increase blood pressure, whereas challenge does not significantly affect this index (e.g., Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999). Second, cardiac output, and specifically the amount of blood excreted by the left ventricle during each stroke, seems to be elevated under challenge but not threat& myocardial contractibility must be elevated (see Kirby & Wright, 2003). Third, peripheral resistance, which is related to vasodilation decreases under challenge but increased under threat. Hence, under threat, blood pressure rises.

Some indices, according to proponents of this model, do not differentiate challenge and threat. In the later variants of this model, heart rate, for example, might not differ between these states (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, Lickel, & Kowai-Bell, 2001).

Sources of these physiological responses to challenge and threat

Proponents of this model ascribe the physiological responses to challenge and threat to sympathetic-adrenomedullary activity and pituitary-adrenocortical activity respectively (see Dienstbier, 1989). That is, when individuals experience a sense of challenge, sympathetic-adrenomedullary activity escalates. In turn, the sympathetic stimulation increases cardiac performance. Furthermore, the release of adrenaline, associated with this activity, also increases cardiac performance but dilates blood vessels to curb blood pressure (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996).

In contrast, when individuals experience a sense of threat, pituitary-adrenocortical activity escalates. This activity inhibits the release of adrenaline--the adrenaline that sympathetic-adrenomedullary activity releases. Hence, although cardiac performance continues to rise moderately, the blood vessels are not dilated, and hence blood pressure might rise (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996).

Kirby and Wright (2003), however, do challenge some of these arguments. They contend, for example, that none of these arguments explain why heart rate does not differ between challenge and threat.

Neurological underpinnings

As Koslov, Mendes, Pajtas, and Pizzagalli (2011) showed, individuals tend to demonstrate challenge, instead of threat, when the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (BA 9) is more strongly activated than is the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex at baseline. That is, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is associated with approach instead of avoidance.

Specifically, in this study, participants needed to present a speech. In one condition, no audience was present. In the second condition, the audience was supportive, nodding their head for example during the speech. In the final condition, representing social rejection, the audience was critical, often shaking their head and frowning.

As shown by EEG recordings and cardiac measures, if baseline levels of the left, relative to right, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were elevated, social rejection tended to increase cardiac output but not blood pressure. That is, this asymmetry demonstrated the hallmarks of challenge. In contrast, if baseline levels of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were elevated, social rejection increased blood pressure but not cardiac output, representing threat. Asymmetry in activation did not affect these physiological measures in the other conditions.

Manipulations and determinants of challenge and threat

In general, to assess this model, two conditions are often compared. In the first condition, resources most likely exceed the demands of participants--and hence a sense of challenge should be evoked. In the second condition, resources cannot accommodate demands, which should prompt a sense of threat (e.g., Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997). To manipulate demand, effort rather than uncertainty or danger is usually manipulated (Kirby & Wright, 2003).

Many approaches have been used to manipulate challenge and threat, such as familiar and unfamilar tasks respectively (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999) or feedback in which they informed they perform well or ineffectively, relative to someone else (Mendes, Blascovich, Major, & Seery, 2001). In these studies, cardiac activity is elevated when participants experience challenge rather than threat. Vascular resistance, however, is diminished when challenge is evoked. Other physiological indices have been examined in a subset of studies only, such as blood pressure and heart rate (for a review, see Kirby & Wright, 2003).

To illustrate, as Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, and Salomon (1999) showed, if individuals undertake a task they have practiced extensively, they feel equipped to complete this activity. The presence of another person is conceptualized as a challenge, escalating adrenaline. Hence, they perform more proficiently if someone observes their behavior.

Conversely, if individuals undertake a task they have not practiced extensively, they do not feel as equipped to complete this activity. The presence of another person is conceptualized as a threat, escalating cortisol. They perform less proficiently if someone observes their behavior. One practical implications is that these supervisors should refrain from monitoring employees too closely as these individuals master a task.

Goal orientation: Emphasis on learning versus performance

Whenever people complete a task, they can either strive to enhance their capabilities or strive to outperform other individuals or standards (see goal orientation). Interestingly, as Stout, and Dasgupta (2013) showed, if people strive to enhance, rather than demonstrate, their capabilities, they become more likely to experience a sense of challenge rather than threat.

In one study, women prepared before a simulated job interview. Some participants were instructed either to focus on extending their skills& that is, they were told to utilize the interview as an opportunity to identify the skills they would like to develop in the future. Other participants were encouraged to perform well and avoid errors. Furthermore, before the interview, all participants met the interviewer who either did or did not refer to masculine terms, like "guys", while describing the job. Finally, participants indicated the degree to which they felt anxious and worried, to indicate threat, or confident and determined, to indicate challenge, before the interview. An emphasis on developing skills, rather than performing well, promoted a sense of challenge instead of threat, but only if the interviewer had referred to masculine terms and thus provoked negative emotions.

The second study was similar, except two control conditions were included. In the control condition, some participants were instructed to perform well, called performance prove or approach. Other participants were instructed to avoid errors, called performance avoid. An emphasis on skill development promoted a sense of challenge more than did performance approach, which promoted a sense of challenge more than did performance avoid. Furthermore, this sense of challenge increased the likelihood that people intended to behave assertively during the interview, epitomized by questions like "I will make my views known during the interview". The final study uncovered a similar pattern of results when the question revolved around experiences during, rather than before, the job interview.

Presumably, when individuals adopt a mastery or learning orientation, in which they strive to enhance their skills, they perceive their goals as more plausible rather than overwhelming. Plausible goals are more likely to promote a sense of challenge rather than threat.

A sense of distance: Self talk that avoids first person pronouns

Individuals often talk to themselves in stressful circumstances. Sometimes, they utilize first person pronouns, such as "I" and "me". They might, for example, say to themselves "Why do I feel this way?" or "I can do better". On other occasions, they might abstain from first person pronouns and instead refer to themselves by name, such as "Why did Jane feel this way?" Or they might say "You can do better".

Interestingly, when people abstain from first person pronouns, they are more likely to perceive stressful tasks as challenges rather than threats. Their stress, distress, and shame tend to diminish as well. Presumably, when individuals abstain from first person pronouns, they tend to experience a sense of distance from these thoughts. They are not as immersed in these thoughts and feelings--but instead adopt the role of an impartial observer, oblivious to this distress. They can reflect rather than ruminate. Consequently, when people experience this sense of distance, they can shift their attention to potential insights rather than concrete concerns, diminishing the perceived demands and, therefore, curbing their sense of threat.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Kross, Park, Burson, Dougherty, Shablack, Bremner, Moser, and Ayduk (2014), participants were informed they will need to present a speech in front of an audience. They were then asked to consider their feelings with reference either to first person pronouns or to other pronouns and names. Next, they indicated the degree to which they perceive the task as challenging and stressful as well as described their thoughts. If participants were instructed to abstain from first person pronouns, but instead refer to their name or words like "you" or "she", they were more likely to report a sense of challenge but not stress. The thoughts they described also epitomized confidence rather than doubt.

Motivations

In one study, to evoke a sense of challenge, the task was conceptualized as "mental arithmetic" and the individuals were instructed to "Try hard to do their best" and to perceive the activity as a "challenge" (e.g., Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997). To evoke a sense of threat, participants were instructed to conceptualize the task as "difficult mental arithmetic", which they should perform efficiently and quickly, working until they complete the questions.

Difficulty

In another study, conducted by Tomaka, Palacios, Schneider, Colotla, Concha, and Herrald (1999), participants were instructed to present a speech. In addition, their level of assertiveness was assessed, using the NEO. Assertive participants were assumed to experience a sense of challenge in these contexts& unassertive participants were assumed to experience threat in these instances.

Autonomy

At work, the level of autonomy can affect whether a stressful environment is conceptualized as a challenge or threat. Job complexity, for example, can represent a challenge or threat, depending on whether individuals are granted enough autonomy. That is, some jobs are particularly complex: Employees must undertake challenging tasks, demanding many complex skills. These jobs are not structured clearly& instead, individuals must apply their initiative, ingenuity, and creativity to reach decisions in ambiguous situations. They cannot merely follow a set of procedures or routines. For example, to measure job complexity, individuals are asked the extent to which, for example, "The job requires that I only do one task or activity at a time".

As Chung-Yan (2010) showed, when autonomy is elevated, job complexity tends to be beneficial: High or moderate, rather than low, levels of job complexity seem to enhance job satisfaction and psychological wellbeing, as measured by the general health questionnaire. When autonomy is limited, however, job complexity is not always beneficial. In particular, as job complexity increases from low to moderate, job satisfaction and psychological wellbeing improve whereas turnover diminishes. However, as job complexity increases from moderate to high, job satisfaction and psychological wellbeing do not improve, and even begin to wane, whereas turnover increases.

According to Chung-Yan (2010), when autonomy is elevated, individuals feel they can withstand the complications that job complexity can elicit. They perceive job complexity as a challenge--as an opportunity to develop their skills and qualities. In contrast, when autonomy is restricted, individuals feel they cannot withstand the complications that job complexity can evoke. They may regard elevated levels of job complexity as a threat, obstructing their goals and duties.

Thus, to ensure job complexity is conceptualized as a challenge, managers must grant sufficient autonomy. Employees should be permitted to determine the order in which they complete tasks, the methods they will apply, as well as reach other decisions.

Perceived power

Sometimes, individuals experience a feeling of power and influence over other people (see perceived power). This sense of power evokes the physiological responses that epitomize challenge instead of threat.

For example, in one study, conducted by Scheepers, de Wit, Ellemers, and Sassenberg (2012), some participants were asked to present a speech about a time in which they were granted power over other people. Other participants were asked to present a speech about a time in which they were not granted any power. Their physiological responses to this speech were recorded. If they recalled a time in which they were granted power, their cardiac output was especially high relative to their total peripheral resistance, reflecting challenge instead of threat.

In the next study, a different procedure was utilized to manipulate power. Participants negotiated with another person. The setting was contrived so their relative position was either strong or weak. Again, if their position was strong, cardiac output relative to total peripheral resistance was high.

Collaboration with superior or inferior teammates

When people collaborate or work closely with individuals whose capabilities are superior to their own, they are actually more likely to exhibit the hallmarks of a challenge instead of a threat response (Cleveland, Finez, Blascovich, & Ginther, 2012). That is, despite an increase in cardiac output, their blood pressure does not tend to increase. Presumably, provide they feel a sense of identify with these superior people, these individuals feel they have acquired more resources when they join these workgroup. That is, they feel they can access more capabilities, skills, and other provisions. They feel their resources exceed their demands, increasing the likelihood they will experience a sense of challenge, instead of threat, under stressful circumstances. This sense of challenge then enhances performance on many tasks, such as anagrams (Cleveland, Finez, Blascovich, & Ginther, 2012).

The implications of these results are interesting. As these results imply, if individuals feel they are superior to their colleagues, they may actually experience feelings of threat instead of challenge.

Ideals versus obligations

When individuals reflect upon moral ideals, instead of moral obligations, they are more likely to experience a sense of challenge instead of threat. That is, their cardiac output is likely to increase but their blood pressure is likely to diminish (Does, Derks, Ellemers, & Scheepers, 2012). They are also more likely to feel eager instead of vigilant (Does, Derks, Ellemers, & Scheepers, 2012).

These possibilities were demonstrated by Does, Derks, Ellemers, and Scheepers (2012). In this study, White Dutch students read an article about injustice. The article, actually fictitious, demonstrated that people are more paid if born in Holland rather than born overseas, regardless of education. Next, these students were asked to present a speech about this issue. Some participants were instructed to consider how they could contribute to attain the ideal of social equality. Other participants were instructed to consider how they could meet the obligation of social equality, only a subtle difference. While they presented this speech, their physiological responses were recorded.

If asked to present a speech that emphasizes ideals instead of obligations, mean arterial pressure was lower but cardiac output was higher, consistent with a sense of challenge. Furthermore, the speeches that related to ideals included more words, reflecting an eager rather than vigilant orientation.

Category of adversities

Some adversities are perceived as more threatening than other adversities. Specifically, adversities that compromise relationships are perceived as more threatening than are adversities that impede goals or damage the self-concept of people. In one study, participants imagined a relationship conflict, an unfulfilled goal to secure money, or negative feedback. Next, they indicated the extent to which they felt exhausted, weak, or depleted. Relative to the other adversities, relationships conflicts were especially likely to feel exhausted, weak, and depleted (Halevy, Chou, & Galinsky, 2012).

Consequences of challenge and threat

Some disparities across studies have emerged. Heart rate is usually elevated when challenge rather than threat is evoked, but the reverse pattern has been observed. Diastolic blood pressure also varies across studies (for a review, see Kirby & Wright, 2003).

Threat is more likely than challenge to increase blood pressure. Research confirms the notion that high systolic blood pressure coincide with decrements in cognitive performance. In particular, as Pase, Stough, Grima, Harris, Macpherson, Scholey, and Pipingas (2013) showed, central or aortic blood pressure is negatively associated with processing speed, Stroop processing, and recognition memory. Higher brachial systolic pressure, measured on the arm, corresponds to decrements in Stroop processing.

Task performance

Drach-Zahavya and Erez (2014) also showed that challenge appraisals are more likely than threat appraisals to enhance performance--although the magnitude of this effect depends on the goals of individuals. When individuals experience a sense of challenge instead of threat, they perceive steep goals as an opportunity to grow and develop. In response to steep goals, they feel aroused but not worried& their performance improves. In contrast, when individuals experience a sense of threat, they perceive steep goals as a threat to their self-esteem. In response to steep goals, they worry intensely, compromising their performance. The goal to merely improve their strategies and practices would not seem as threatening and, therefore, does not impede performance in these individuals.

To verify these possibilities, in one study, Drach-Zahavya and Erez (2014) conducted an experimental study. In this study, participants completed a complex task: prediction of stocks. The goals of participants manipulated. Some participants were granted a very steep goal& other participants were encouraged to identify the best strategy initially& finally some participants were instructed to perform as well as possible. Finally, to instil a sense of challenge, some participants were told that past individuals felt that, provided the tried hard, they are likely to succeed. To instil threat, some participants were informed that past training was needed to succeed, diminishing their sense of control. As predicted, a sense of challenge was more likely than a sense of threat to enhance performance on this complex task, but especially if the goal was very steep.

Negotiation performance

The extent to which individuals appraise an event as a threat or challenge also affects performance during negotiations. As O'Connor, Arnold, and Maurizio (2010) showed, when participants conceptualize a negotiation as threatening, they experience appreciate stress during the negotiation and do not reach favorable agreements. In contrast, when participants conceptualize a negotiation as a challenge, they do not experience this level of stress and, therefore, reach more favorable agreements.

Specifically, in this study, participants who perceive the negotiation as a challenge demonstrated more initiative, applying persuasive tactics. They also formed more accurate perceptions of the priorities and interests of their rival.

In one study, for example, challenge or threat was primed (O'Connor, Arnold, & Maurizio, 2010). To prime challenge, participants were informed that success on the negotiation task demands determination and persistence. That is, they were told the task is not too demanding, provided individuals exhibit this effort. To prime threat, participants were told the task was very difficult& they were informed they are unlikely to be successful unless they have acquired advanced skills or tend to be fortunate.

Next, they engaged in a negotiation task about a school project and trip. Finally, they completed questions about the tactics their rival utilized--who was also a participant of the study. If the individuals perceived the negotiation as a challenge, they were more likely to fulfill their goals in this negotiation. They were also more likely to be perceived as imposing pressure, exhibiting initiative and assertiveness.

Creativity

The biophysical model of challenge and threat can, arguably, explain the complex relationships between stress and creativity. To explore this relationship, Byron, Khazanchi, and Nazarian (2010) conducted a meta-analysis. This meta-analysis explored all experimental studies that manipulated the level of various stressors and assessed a measure of creativity, such as divergent thinking, the alternative uses test, or artistic tasks.

For each study, the authors assessed the extent to which the context in which the experiment was conducted entailed social evaluation, one form of stress. Social evaluation included procedures such as videotaping participants, arranging an audience, or comparing performance to some standard or person. The number of these procedures was regarded as a measure of social evaluation threat. The authors then assessed the number of uncontrollable features in the context. These features included task difficulty, false negative feedback, criticism, or distractions like noise.

Interestingly, the relationship between social evaluation threat and creativity conformed to an inverted U. Some evaluation enhanced creativity& however, excessive evaluation undermined creativity. The relationship between uncontrollable features and creativity was negative, however (Byron, Khazanchi, & Nazarian, 2010).

Presumably, when social evaluation is excessive or uncontrollable features are introduced, individuals do not feel they can fulfill the requisite standards. They experience a sense of threat, compromising creativity. However, when social evaluation is moderate, individuals might perceive the context as challenging, facilitating creativity.

Curbing stereotype threat

An emphasis on challenge, rather than threat, has also been shown to curb the deleterious effects of stereotype threat. Specifically, all individuals belong to social categories that correspond to some negative stereotypes. When these stereotypes are reinforced, called stereotype threat, individuals do not perform as proficiently in the domains in which they are assumed to be deficient.

Usually, to reinforce these stereotypes, individuals are encouraged to reflect upon the social category to which they belong. For example, when the social category of individuals is underscored, White individuals, in contrast to Black individuals, become less likely to perform well in athletic competitions (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999). That is, these participants become more aware of the stereotype that White individuals do not thrive in athletic contexts. The awareness of this stereotype impairs their performance.

Similarly, when the social category of individuals is reinforced, Black individuals perform less effectively in academic settings (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Similarly, women do not perform as well on mathematical (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) or spatial (McGlone & Aronson, 2006) tasks, whereas men do not perform as well on verbal tasks (Keller, 2007).

Three sets of mechanisms might underpin these effects. In particular, when these negative stereotypes are emphasized, individuals experience anxiety and strain (e.g., Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001), which can damage performance, especially on complex tasks. Second, individuals become more inclined to monitor their performance, which can distract their attention (Seibt & Forster, 2004). Third, individuals might attempt to suppress doubts and concerns, which also depletes the level of effort and concentration they can maintain (Bosson, Haymovitz, & Pinel, 2004)

These effects of stereotype threat, however, diminish if individuals conceptualize the task as a challenge and not as a threat. To illustrate, in a study conducted by Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, and Ruble (2010), Latino individuals completed a task that assesses mathematical proficiency. Some participants were encouraged to conceptualize this task as a threat. The instructions highlighted the test gauges the ability of individuals to solve mathematical problems. Other participants were encouraged to conceptualize this task as a challenge. The instructions emphasized the task enables individuals to sharpen their cognitive skills and learn mathematics. In this sense, the instructions focused on learning rather than performance.

In addition, some participants were asked to specify their racial category before they completed the task--a question that could provoke stereotype threat. Other participants answered this question only after they completed the task.

Interestingly, if participants regarded the task as a threat, salience of the stereotype did impair performance. Individuals performed less effectively if they specified their race before, rather than after, completing the activity. In contrast, if participants regarded the task as a challenge, salience of the stereotype did not impair performance.

Aging of the brain

As Jefferson et al. (2010) showed, increased cardiac output has been shown to delay aging of the brain. Cardiac output, divided by body surface area, was positively associated with total brain volume and information processing speed as well as negatively associated with lateral ventricular volume in older adults. Increased cardiac output is associated with challenge instead of threat. These findings, therefore, imply that challenge might decelerate brain aging.

Limitations to the evidence

Kirby and Wright (2003) identify several limitations of this empirical evidence. First, they highlight that few studies assess whether the conditions do indeed provoke feelings of challenge or threat to validate the manipulations.

Second, many studies do not assess appraisals of resources and demand. Hence, the effects of any manipulations can be ascribed to the procedures themselves and not necessarily the ratio of resources and demands. Attempts to measure demand with subjective assessment of task stress, threat, effort, or demand (e.g., Mendes, Blascovich, Major, & Seery, 2001) are not adequate& subjective definitions of demand differ from formal definitions of demand, as stipulated by proponents of this model.

Related concepts

Stress inoculation

Many studies show that moderate levels of stress, if managed effectively, increase the resilience of individuals later in life. For example, Neff and Broady (2011) uncovered the role of stress inoculation in the context of marriages. In particular, moderately stressful life events, coupled with a capacity to solve problems effectively, increased the resilience of couples over the next two years.

In the first study, both members of 61 couples completed a questionnaire 5 times every 6 months. The first questionnaire was completed within the first six months of marriage. The questionnaire included measures of life stress, marital satisfaction, and some personality traits, such as extraversion, neuroticism, and self esteem. To gauge life stress, the individuals were asked to estimate the extent to which they perceived various domains, in their life such as work, finances, living arrangements, health, and friendships as positive or stressful.

Furthermore, at the first time, the participants were asked to discuss a problem or issue in their marriage. The extent to which they resolved these problems effectively was coded by independent judges. Specifically, problem solving was regarded as positive whenever one of the spouses clarified the problem, suggested a plan, showed understanding, and encouraged the other person. Problem solving was regarded as negative whenever one of the spouses criticized the other person, expressed a sarcastic remark, or avoided responsibility.

In general, stressful events at one time correlated with diminished levels of marital satisfaction at the same time. Nevertheless, in some couples, stressful events did not translate to marital dissatisfaction. Specifically, if the females reported elevated levels of stress, but also exhibited positive problem solving skills at the first time, stress was unrelated to marital dissatisfaction at a later time. The stress and problem solving capacity of males did not significantly moderate this association.

The second study was similar. The participants, however, completed questionnaires before and after their first child was born. In this instance, if the individuals had experienced stress at the first time and resolved problems positively, the stress of a child did not damage, and indeed enhanced, marital satisfaction. This finding applied to both males and females.

In short, if individuals are able to manage sizable complications and problems in their life, they become more resilient later. They may associate stress with success, improving their capacity to resolve difficulties that arise.

Shift and persist strategies

The concept of shift and persist strategies, developed by Chen and Miller (2012), shares some features in common with the biophysical model of challenge and threat. Ultimately, this model was developed to explain how some people, despite their low socioeconomic status, become very healthy.

Specifically, according to Chen and Miller (2012), many but not all deprived individuals are susceptible to elevated levels of disease. If their socioeconomic status is low, people are exposed to inconsistent parents, violent neighborhoods, economic deprivation, and many other sources of stress. This stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, increasing the production of cortisol, noradrenaline, adrenaline, and other hormones. Prolonged exposure to these hormones provoke a series of complications, such as insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, visceral fat accumulation, high blood pressure, and endothelial dysfunction, ultimately increasing the likelihood of cardiovascular disease as well as other problems such as stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

Nevertheless, some individuals, despite their low socioeconomic status, can circumvent these problems. In particular, some of these people apply a series of strategies, collectively called shifting and persisting. Shifting primarily includes reappraisal of negative events (see emotional regulation), combined with acceptance of unpleasant emotions (cf., acceptance and commitment). Indeed, shifting is sometimes more prevalent and effective in people with low socioeconomic status. These individuals, often, are unable to change their circumstances and thus need to depend on reframing their life instead. Persisting primarily refers to the capacity of some individuals to recognize the meaning in their life as well as optimism that such significant goals may be achieved.

Taken together, these shifting and persisting strategies diminish stress and thus inhibit the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. Furthermore, as stress diminishes, other changes are observed, such as increased levels of oxytocin and increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, as gauged by increased heart rate variability.

According to Chen and Miller (2012), if individuals develop relationships with supportive, inspiring, and helpful role models, they are more likely to shift and persist. Such roles models can evoke a sense of security in relationships (see attachment theory), model suitable strategies to regulate emotions, and help clarify the future goals of individuals.

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