Is a submissive posture adaptive when being evaluated negatively? Effects on cortisol reactivity.

OBJECTIVES: Subordinate status and submissiveness are stressful and are often associated with ill-health. However, when there is a physical or social threat posed by more powerful others, showing submissiveness may be a good strategy to avoid or terminate conflict. One way to show submissiveness is to assume a subordinate body posture, which may also help regulate one's own stress responses by making one feel safer, and by diverting attention away from one's negative emotions and positive expectations.

METHODS: 85 male participants were randomly assigned to assume either a dominant posture (expansive, taking up more space with open limbs) or a subordinate posture (constrictive, taking up less space with closed limbs) while delivering a speech and performing difficult arithmetic tasks in front of two critical evaluators. Cortisol levels were assessed from saliva samples obtained before and after these stressful tasks.

RESULTS: Dominant posture resulted in a larger cortisol response compared to the subordinate posture. Participants in the subordinate posture did not show the normative increase in cortisol observed in other studies using this standardized social-evaluative stress protocol.

CONCLUSION: The finding that a subordinate posture decreases acute stress responses during negative social evaluation suggests that submissive strategies may be appropriate and adaptive in uncontrollable situations involving negative social evaluation. Submissiveness may diminish endocrine stress responses, which are hypothesized to have adverse effects on health in the long term. These findings have implications for developing strategies to help individuals deal with stressful social-evaluative situations while protecting their physical and mental health.

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