OBJECTIVES: Although it is widely accepted that academic examinations are accompanied by a cortisol increase, some recent studies reported either no effect or even a decline of the cortisol level. To reevaluate these discrepancies, we investigated whether personality traits predict the cortisol response upon academic examinations.
SETTING AND DESIGN: Nineteen male and female adolescent pupils (17 to 19 years) participated in the study. Two anticipated, mandatory, routine written examinations were used as familiar stressful conditions, whereas an anticipated, mandatory oral examination in front of a board of known and unknown examiners was used as a novel stressful situation.
METHODS: Baseline, pre- and postexamination salivary cortisol were quantified and correlated with psychometric measures, including self-estimated stress level, obtained from a five-point scale, and sensation seeking subscales according to Zuckerman.
RESULTS: Salivary cortisol response, taken as an average of all subjects, showed a transient increase upon examinations. However, comparing individual cortisol responses revealed three distinct cortisol profiles, including a transient increase (Type 1), a transient decline (Type 2), or no response (Type 3). Type 1 predominates in examinations combined with novelty. A moderate negative association was noted between saliva cortisol concentrations on some sensation seeking subscales. Self-reported stress levels did not significantly correlate with salivary cortisol concentration.
CONCLUSION: Our findings show that upon academic examinations the cortisol response varies among subjects. A moderate negative association was unveiled by correlating individual cortisol responses with sensation seeking subscales.