During tests, feelings of challenge and threat are independent of each other

At first, I thought this study to be very obvious, as this summary is unsurprising: “It makes a big difference whether someone perceives a test as a challenge or a threat. Examiners can have an influence on this.” But luckily, I read on and found the insight mentioned in the title. The following advice is good but again less surprising: “They advise examiners to help reduce stress, for example, by providing information about the conditions of the examination and creating a friendly atmosphere.”

From the press release:

Challenge and threat are independent of each other

Many people are familiar with a fear of examinations, very few would not at least be a little nervous before an oral presentation. The research team took a closer look at the physical and mental reactions before and during this kind of presentation. To do this, they asked 123 participants to talk about their suitability for their dream job in front of an examiner, who reacted neutrally. Before and after this presentation, saliva samples were taken from the people undergoing the test and the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol was determined. They also asked the participants questions, which provided information about whether they perceived the situation as threatening or challenging. The adjectives “confident,” “hopeful” and “optimistic” represented a challenge, while “worried,” “anxious” and “fearful” represented a threat.

“The perception of threat and the cortisol concentration increased during the presentation, while the perception of challenge decreased. Challenge and threat thus show opposite courses and can occur independently of each other,” reports Nina Minkley. “Decreasing cortisol and reduced threat are associated with improved presentation performance.” In particular, the perception of self-efficacy reduced the release of cortisol and led to the participants view the situation as a challenge rather than as a threat.

Possibilities for examiners

“This knowledge is particularly interesting as it highlights possible ways to reduce stress during oral examinations,” says Nina Minkley. “For example, examiners could inform the examinees about the conditions and requirements of the presentation situation in advance in order to keep the initial perception of threat as low as possible.” In addition, examiners could create a friendly and supportive atmosphere right at the beginning when those giving the presentations enter the room, respond more emotionally and give behaviour-based feedback.

Abstract of the study:

The current study investigated how changes in psychological (cognitions and emotions) and physiological (cortisol concentrations) threat/challenge responses develop over the course of a presentation and whether initial intensity levels and their changes are related to self-efficacy and presentation performance. Based on the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), 123 students held video-recorded presentations about their dream job, which were evaluated by three raters. Selfefficacy was measured before the TSST, saliva cortisol concentrations and psychological threat and challenge responses three times during the TSST. Data were analyzed with latent growth modeling. Threat and cortisol increased during the presentation, while challenge decreased. The growth curve coefficients of challenge correlated negatively with the respective coefficients of threat. Also, initial intensity of challenge responses correlated positively with corresponding cortisol concentrations. Higher self-efficacy was associated with higher initial intensity of challenge responses, lower corresponding concentrations of cortisol, and a smaller cortisol increase, but neither with the growth curve coefficients of threat responses nor with presentation performance. Better performance was associated with lower initial intensity of threat and a smaller increase in cortisol. Threat responses and increasing cortisol concentration appear to inhibit presentation performance, while self-efficacy may strengthen challenge responses and reduce corresponding levels of cortisol concentration as well as its increase.

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