Differential responsiveness of repressors and sensitizers to stress

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Repressors and sensitizers were subjected to either electric shock or failure instructions in a verbal learning situation. Heart rate, skin conductance, and state anxiety data were obtained for a 10-min anticipatory period prior to learning as well as for the learning period itself. Results showed no support for Scarpetti's (1973) hypothesis that repressors should show more physiological reactivity than sensitizers but report less state anxiety in the anticipation of stress as opposed to the experience of stress. Rather, the data demonstrated that it is the actual experience of stressful stimuli, and not the threat or anticipation of such stimuli, which repressors and sensitizers find behaviorally disruptive. This disruption was grossly reflected in heart rate and state anxiety data, but not in skin conductance. Paradoxically, the sensitizer-failure (SF) and repressor-pain (RP) groups, which made relatively more errors during learning, showed less arousal in peak skin resistance in the anticipation of stress. This was interpreted in terms of a breakdown of defensive strategy under the actual experience of stress. Moreover, most groups showed a mean trend toward less variability in skin resistance during the learning period, which was considered to reflect an increase in attending behavior rather than arousal. Lastly, the finding of more errors by the SF and RP groups during learning and the failure of the RP group to report this disruption as state anxiety, was similar to results obtained by Glover and Cravens (1974) for high and low trait-anxious subjects. This was regarded as behavioral support for the consistent high positive correlations found between measures or the two personality dimensions.