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Cortisol reactivity to a teacher’s motivating style: the biology of being controlled versus supporting autonomy

Abstract

We hypothesized that participants engaged in a learning activity would show a biological stress response when exposed to a controlling teacher but biological calm when exposed to an autonomy-supportive teacher. Seventy-eight undergraduates (53 females, 25 males) engaged in a 20-minute puzzle-solving activity while exposed to a teacher who enacted either a controlling, neutral, or autonomy-supportive motivating style. Salivary cortisol was assessed before, during, and after the learning activity, and a post-experimental questionnaire assessed participants’ perceptions of the teacher’s motivating style and indices of positive functioning. Manipulated motivating style affected participants’ cortisol, as exposure to a controlling style increased cortisol while exposure to an autonomy-supportive style decreased it, relative to exposure to a neutral style. Correlational analyses with the self-report measures showed that cortisol reactivity occurred in response to interpersonal events rather than to psychological appraisals. We conclude that cortisol reactivity is sensitive to a teacher’s motivating style and that elevated cortisol signals interpersonal obtrusion and pressure while dampened cortisol signals perspective-taking and support.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Ming-Ben Lee of the Department of Immunology in the Medical School at the National Taiwan University in Taiwan for conducting the salivary cortisol analyses. This research was supported by the WCU (World Class University) Program funded by the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, consigned to the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation (Grant no. R32-2008-000-20023-0).

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Correspondence to Johnmarshall Reeve.

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Reeve, J., Tseng, CM. Cortisol reactivity to a teacher’s motivating style: the biology of being controlled versus supporting autonomy. Motiv Emot 35, 63–74 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-011-9204-2

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Keywords

  • Cortisol
  • Motivating style
  • Autonomy support
  • Controlling