Published:  2014

Speaking under pressure: Low linguistic complexity is linked to high physiological and emotional stress reactivity

Authors:  Laura R. Saslow, Shannon McCoy, Ilmo van der Löwe, Brandon Cosley, Arbi Vartan, Christopher Oveis, Dacher Keltner, Judith T. Moskowitz, Elissa S. Epel

Tags:  Cognition, Cognitive complexity, Cortisol reactivity, Language, Stress reactivity

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What can a speech reveal about someone’s state? We tested the idea that greater stress reactivity would relate to lower linguistic cognitive complexity while speaking. In Study 1, we tested whether heart rate and emotional stress reactivity to a stressful discussion would relate to lower linguistic complexity. In Studies 2 and 3, we tested whether a greater cortisol response to a standardized stressful task including a speech (Trier Social Stress Test) would be linked to speaking with less linguistic complexity during the task. We found evidence that measures of stress responsivity (emotional and physiological) and chronic stress are tied to variability in the cognitive complexity of speech. Taken together, these results provide evidence that our individual experiences of stress or “stress signatures”—how our body and mind react to stress both in the moment and over the longer term—are linked to how complex our speech under stress.