Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 317-325

First online:

The social construction of cardiovascular reactivity

  • Nicholas ChristenfeldAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of California, San Diego
  • , Laura M. GlynnAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of California, San Diego
  • , James A. KulikAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of California, San Diego
  • , William GerinAffiliated withCornell University Medical College

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One can view the “reactivity hypothesis” as having two basic forms: the individual difference or personality approach, which suggests that people who show exaggerated cardiovascular responses to stress are at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and the situational or social psychological approach, which suggests that circumstances which give rise to unusually large responses are those that put people at risk of disease. Both versions rely on the generality of cardiovascular responses across situations. Evidence is presented from two studies which indicate that such generality may, however, be hard to come by. In the first study. examining the personality approach, we show that a simple change in setting dramatically attenuates the consistency of reactivity. In the second study, from the social psychological perspective, we show that subtle alterations in the situation have profound effects on group mean responses. In both cases, reactivity proved extremely sensitive to the context, suggesting that testing in arbitrary and artificial settings cannot be expected to generalize well to the real world. Instead, we argue, careful attention to psychological naturalism is essential, with the testing carefully matched to specific real-world phenomena of interest.