The physiological effects and issues of arousal
Two studies were carried out; a pilot study, which involved two physiological reactions that were galvanic skin response and blood pressure (diastolic and systolic). The readings were taken before, during and after the experiment, whereby the participant had to read an article. The main study measured galvanic skin response (GSR), using the same time conditions. The aim of the study was to examine the physiological effects of arousal when a person is subjected to embarrassment. The results from the pilot study show that blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) increases during and after the experiment and galvanic skin response increases too. It was found that participants with a social phobia had higher levels of arousal than the participants with no social phobia. Another result showed that arousal was present in the participants in all of the time conditions, but particularly increases during the experiment.
There are two parts to the nervous system; one being the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord and the other being the peripheral nervous system, containing the sensory neurones and the motor neurones. The peripheral nervous system can then be broken down into two separate systems; firstly the somatic nervous system and secondly the autonomic nervous system. The somatic division controls the skeletal muscle contraction, which is a voluntary function, whereas the autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates glands and muscles that are responsible for the blood pressure and heart rate (Wickens, 2005). The ANS is then divided into two separate divisions, one being the sympathetic and the other the parasympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system reverses the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, which includes changes in blood pressure, opening of the airways to the lungs and heart rate, as it is subconsciously activated when the body is under stress (Wickens, 2005). Physiological changes occur by the sympathetic nervous system when an emotional reaction is experienced. Increased heart rate is found when anger and fear is experienced but increased body temperature only occurs in response to anger. Embarrassment is an emotion that is related to a heightened state of arousal and it is “that uncomfortable state of mortification, awkwardness, and chagrin that can result whenever undesired events publicly threaten one's social identity” (Goffman, 1956, pg 1061, cited in Miller, 1995).
The main type of emotion that will be looked at is embarrassment, which is associated to shame, shyness and guilt, as it is a type of social emotional response and it inspires people to help them get along with other people. Submissive-related behaviour is the type of expression that occurs while being embarrassed, which include downward head movements. Embarrassment can occur through smiles of embarrassment, which are submissive emotions in flirtation. There are many situations that embarrassment can occur in, which include being asked a question in front of a number of people in a classroom, where the person then becomes centre of attention. Another situation could be when a person falls over when entering a room with a lot of people inside; you are disgracing your own presentation through foolishness. Both of these situations can cause embarrassment, which is not to the extreme but some studies have shown that fear of embarrassment could have long-term effects, such that Latane and Darley (1970), cited in Harris, (2001), has suggested that embarrassment may play a particular role in spectator intervention. Also this continuous fear can lead to impairment in occupational, social and personal life goals (Rector, Kocovski and Ryder, 2006).
The types of physiological measures that were recorded from the participant were the blood pressure (mmHg), which consisted of the systolic and diastolic pressures. Arteries are the vessels that carry the blood from the heart to be circulated around the body. Blood is pumped into the arteries every time the heart beats, which is around 60-70 times a minute while at rest. The systolic pressure is when the heart beats and pumps the blood, so the person’s blood pressure will be at its highest point. The diastolic pressure is when the heart is resting and is pumping the blood, resulting in the blood pressure falling. Blood pressure will generally stay the same unless people take part in exercise, become nervous or get excited whereby peoples blood pressure will rise dramatically. The other measurement that was recorded was the galvanic skin response (GSR). This is recorded by the person’s sweat glands and the meter records electrical skin conductance from the fingers. The GSR measures arousal effects, for instance when a person lies. Both of these measurements were noted before, during and after the experiment. Pulse rate was also recorded but was not analysed within the experiment.
One type of physiological reaction that occurs during an embarrassing event is blushing, which is described by Buss (1980), cited in Edelmann, (1987). Buss (1980), cited in Gerlach, Wilhelm and Roth, (2003) concluded that parasympathetic activation is the main part in embarrassment. He gained this evidence from two studies by Buck and Parke, (1972) and Buck et al, (1970), cited in Gerlach et al, (2003). The first study involved participants getting told they would have to suck on a baby bottle, a pacifier or a breast shield. The participants did not have to actually do this and the second study was similar to this one. The results showed that the heart rate decreased during the anticipation of the task for the participants, in both of the studies and Gerlach et al, (2003) found that the parasympathetic nerve decreases the heart rate and the sympathetic nerve increases the heart rate. The reason why people redden in the face when they take part in exercise is because of the blood vessels under the skin, which help to control the temperature. Exercise is a prime example to blushing, as it increases the blood temperature, resulting in the blood filling the capillaries, which are near the skin. Another example of a physiological reaction that occurs because of embarrassment is increased body temperature, due to the heart rate increasing. There are also some nonverbal reactions that arise from being embarrassed, which have occurred from the results of Edelmann and Hapson (1979, 1981), cited in Harris, (2001) study, which showed body movements, speech disturbances and reduced eye contact. Similar results occurred from Keltner (1995) cited in Harris, (2001) through detailed coding and analysis, the most vigorous features that were displayed were looking down, trying to control their smile and continuous gaze shifts. Gray, and Schuette (1965), cited in Modigliani, (1971) discovered that people make less eye contact when telling more embarrassing and personal information.
Leary, Rejeski, Britt and Smith (1996), cited in Gerlach et al (2003), ran an experiment using forty female participants, which involved the structure of their body being examined by a same sex experimenter. Leary et al, (1996), cited in Gerlach et al (2003), used physiological measures, such as heart rate and blood pressure and found that the participants reported greater embarrassment during the experiment, compared to before the experiment. Heart rate and blood pressure were both higher when in the anticipation phase and during the experiment than after the experiment.
A study was conducted by Hofman (1995), where they looked at people with social phobias and avoidant personality disorders (ADP) and people without these. The study involved the participants speaking in front of an audience and to see whether the participants with a social phobia or ADP became more anxious, than the participants without the social phobia. The results showed that the participants with the social phobias and APD reported more fear and social phobic participants without APD had a greater heart rate than the other group (social phobics with APD).
Experiments have been run to see whether the type of audience will affect the participant’s behaviour. One study that was run was by Macdonald and Davis (1983), discovered that when a person is in front of a stranger or a friend and has to take part in an embarrassing experiment, the person becomes more embarrassed in front of a stranger, than a friend. This is because the stranger does not know anything about the character of the person, so this would be the only impression given from the participant to the stranger.
The study that was carried out measured physiological reactions of arousal and notably embarrassment. It involved a participant reading a short article out loud to a small audience for 5 minutes. Before the experiment took place a blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) reading was taken, along with galvanic skin response (GSR) readings and both were taken during and after the experiment.
The aim of the study was to examine the physiological effects of arousal when a person is subjected to embarrassment. This can be measured by a blood pressure monitor to see whether the participant’s blood pressure changes when subjected to embarrassment. A GSR reading is needed to see whether embarrassment changes this and to see when these changes actually occur. This study will also look at whether social phobia will effect the physiological reactions.
Based on past research it was predicted that during the experiment the arousal levels of the participants will reach its highest point compared to before and after the experiment. The second hypothesis was that if the participant had a social phobia their arousal levels will be higher compared to participants with no social phobia.
For the pilot study the independent variables that were manipulated were the three conditions for time (before, during and after the experiment) and the dependent variables were galvanic skin response (GSR) and blood pressure-systolic and diastolic, (mmHg). The type of design method that took place within the main study was a 2 x 3 factorial ANOVA, mixed design, which was employed, as you have both within and between subjects. The independent variables that were manipulated were social phobia and no social phobia and time (before, during and after the experiment) and the dependent variable that was measured was, GSR.
In the pilot study, one participant’s results were recorded, who was female and twenty years of age. Another forty participants results who were gathered from the laboratory tutor and used for the main study, which consisted of twenty social phobic participants and twenty participants without social phobia. No gender or age split was recorded from these participants. All the participants who took part were Psychology Undergraduates from the University of Central Lancashire.
A stopwatch was used within the experiment to measure 5 minutes before, during and after the experiment when measuring blood pressure/heart rate and galvanic skin response (GSR). The equipment used to measure blood pressure was an A & D Medical Digital Blood Pressure Monitor-Model UA767. Two sets of data were recorded for blood pressure and this was systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. GSR was measured using an Autogenics System’s Advanced Technology AT64 Portable SCR.
At the start of the experiment, the participant was taken into a Laboratory and was asked to sit down on the chair. They were then asked to consent to taking part in the experiment and were told they could withdraw from the experiment at anytime. A blood pressure monitor was then placed on the participants arm and a systolic and diastolic pressure reading was taken. The heart rate of the participant was also recorded. Straight after this took place, a galvanic skin response (GSR) meter reading was taken, by placing the meter on the participant’s non-dominant index finger and the middle finger. Both the blood pressure reading and the GSR reading were taken 5 minutes before the experiment took place. The experimenter then asked the participant to read an article (refer to appendix 1) from a paper out loud until asked to stop (5 minutes). During the experiment a meter reading was taken every minute for the GSR, for the full 5 minutes. Half way through the experiment a systolic and diastolic blood pressure reading and heart rate reading were taken. After the 5 minutes had finished the participant was left to rest for another 5 minutes and then a GSR and blood pressure reading were taken for the final time. At the end of the experiment, the participant was debriefed.
Shown below in table 1 are the results for the pilot study:
Table 1: Blood pressure (systolic, diastolic) and galvanic skin response results before, during and after the experiment
Blood Pressure (mmHg)
Galvanic Skin Response
By referring to the table above showing the pilot study results, the participant’s blood pressure when the heart beats (systolic) suggests an increase when the experiment is running, compared to before the experiment and after the experiment. The participant’s blood pressure when the heart is at rest (diastolic) shows that there is also an increase during the experiment, compared to before or after it. Both of these results show that the participant becomes more aroused when taking part in the experiment than before or after it. The galvanic skin response (GSR) results show that there is also an effect on arousal, as the participant’s GSR increases, when the participant takes part in the experiment. This is compared to before and after the experiment, but before the experiment it is still lower than once the experiment had taken place.
The raw data (refer to appendix 2) consists of the forty participants and twenty of which have a social phobia and twenty do not have a social phobia. The GSR readings were taken for all the forty participants, before (GSR 1), during (GSR 2) and after (GSR 3) the experiment.
Table 2: Mean and Standard Deviations of the GSR readings (before, during, after) when the participant has the social phobia and when the participant does not
No Social Phobia
No Social Phobia
No Social Phobia
The table (refer to appendix 3, for descriptive statistics) above suggests before (GSR 1) the experiment takes place the GSR readings show that when the participant has the social phobia, there is a greater mean, compared to when the participant does not have the social phobia. During (GSR 2) the experiment, the mean results increase both for when the participant has the social phobia and when the participant does not have it. The participant with the social phobia has a larger mean compared to when the participant does not have the social phobia. After (GSR 3) the experiment took place the means for the participants with social phobia and no social phobia both decreased, but once again the participant with the social phobia has a higher mean. This suggests that the participants tend to become more aroused when having the social phobia than when the participants do not. Another outcome to these results is that arousal is also increased during the experiment when compared to before and after the experiment took place. The last effect is that both the participants with and without the social phobia are more aroused after the experiment in comparison to before the experiment.
When referring to the 2 x 3 factorial ANOVA, mixed design calculations output (refer to appendix 4), the GSR results for when the time the GSR readings are taken, show a significant effect (F(2, 76)=339.26, p<0.001, Eta2 =.90). This implies that when the participant’s readings are taken before, during and after the experiment, there is a moderate effect on the GSR meter. Galvanic skin response results when the participants have a social phobia, are also significant (F(1, 38)=23.15, p<0.001, Eta2 =.38). This means that when the participants have a social phobia there is an effect on the GSR meter. The interaction between time (before, during and after) and when the participant has a social phobia, also has a significant effect (F(2,76)=12.61, p<0.001, Eta2 =.68). This shows that when the participant has a social phobia, there could be an effect on all 3 of the conditions (before, during and after).
Figure 1 (refer to appendix 5), shows that when the participant has a social phobia, before (GSR 1) the experiment took place, the mean score was slightly higher compared to the participants who did not have the social phobia. During (GSR 2) the experiment the mean score for the participants who had the social phobia increased, compared to before the experiment. The participants who did not have the social phobia, results for the mean also increased but were still lower than that of the participants who had the social phobia. After (GSR 3) the experiment, both the participants with the social phobia and without the social phobia mean results decreased but once again the participants without the social phobia results were lower. When comparing the mean results for the participants who had the social phobia after the experiment took place, the mean results were higher compared to the mean results before the experiment. This is in comparison to when the participants did not have a social phobia because the mean results show the same result before and after the experiment took place.
The pilot study has revealed that the galvanic skin response (GSR) and the blood pressure readings both showed an increase during the experiment, compared to before and after the experiment. Even when the experiment had finished the diastolic blood pressure and GSR readings were still higher than the readings before the experiment had taken place. This is because people fear that others will not perceive them as they wish and will form impressions of their character, through this experience. The situation that the person is in is not the ideal situation for the participant to show their real character, so the participant then becomes embarrassed for what others would think of them. When people are in a situation where becoming the centre of attention could occur to the participant, this could make them quite self conscious (Leary, Britt, Cutlip and Templeton, 1992, cited in Rector, 2006)
When referring to table 2, before the main experiment took place, the mean results showed that the participants who had social phobia had higher levels of arousal, compared to the participants without a social phobia. During the experiment both the social phobic and no social phobic participants had increased levels of arousal, compared to the results obtained before the experiment. However, in particular the social phobic condition was deemed higher than the no social phobic condition. After the experiment had taken place the levels of arousal had decreased for both the social phobic and the no social phobic participants. When the participant had social phobia after the experiment this was considerably higher than when the participant had social phobia, before the experiment. When the participant had no social phobia after the experiment, this reading was very similar to the reading before the experiment occurred.
Figure 1 shows that social phobic people have higher levels of arousal in an embarrassing situation compared to no social phobic people, even though before and after the experiment arousal levels are low compared to during the experiment. The participants without a social phobia had similar low arousal results for before and after the experiment.
The findings from the statistical analysis do support the hypotheses, as the results from the pilot study and main study both showed an increase in GSR during the experiment and the GSR was lower before and after the experiment. The second hypothesis is also correct because the results from the main study suggest that, the participants with a social phobia had greater levels of GSR, compared to the participants without a social phobia. The final result was the interaction between time (before, during and after) and social phobia and there was a relationship between these. This means that if the participant has a social phobia, GSR levels can have an effect at any time before, during or after the experiment.
The current findings do support the information provided previously, as Leary et al (1996), cited in Gerlach et al (2003), study showed an increase in blood pressure and heart rate during the experiment and this study also found increased blood pressure in the pilot study during and after the experiment. This study is specifically linked to arousal as it looks at physiological reactions on arousal and particularly embarrassment. Social phobic participants had increased heart rates in the study by Hofman (1995) and this supports the current findings, to show that people with a social phobia have higher arousal levels than people without a social phobia. The final study that supports the current findings is by Macdonald and Davis (1983), as this study analysed participants that were witnessed by a group of strangers and a group of friends. The findings showed that when the participant had an audience full of strangers, embarrassment levels increased. This is relevant to this study as the pilot study consisted of a participant who did not know any of the audience members, therefore arousal levels were high, as evidence from the blood pressure and GSR monitors show this.
The findings from the study do agree with past studies but one issue with this main study is that GSR was only measured, so more physiological reactions are needed to be carried out to expand the study and to have more evidence. Some could include blood pressure as this was recorded in the pilot study but not in the analysis of the main study. This could then relate back to previous studies and more findings could occur, as the studies that were found included heart rate and blood pressure alone.
An implication to this study for the social phobic participants could be that the experiment that was run, only measured physiological effects to the participants. This meant that no results were found on how to improve the participant’s social phobia, instead it just found out what happens to the participants when embarrassed, such as increased blood pressure. The study did show that social phobic participants did have high arousal levels before, during and after the experiment but especially during and after. This can then direct experimenters to lead to new interventions to help social phobic’s, as this study does not specifically help social phobic’s.
One methodological problem to this study is that the pilot study only recorded blood pressure for one participant instead of a number of participants. As the main study (forty participants) only included the analysis of GSR readings and not blood pressure, the blood pressure results may not be consistent with other participants. To improve this, more participants would be needed in the experiment when testing blood pressure, to get a more reliable result. Another methodological problem for this study is that the readings on the GSR meter were not fixed, as the numbers went up and down on the meter and did not stick to one number. This meant that the experimenter had to look at the stopwatch and glance at the meter, but by this time the number on the meter could have changed dramatically. An improvement to this could be to attach this GSR meter to a computer, where a fixed reading and time would appear on the screen, making this more accurate. Another improvement to the experiment could be to experiment with more physiological effects, such as blushing, explained by Buss (1980), cited in Edelmann, (1987) by taking down the readings before, during and after the experiment.
Future research for this study could include exploring the effects of embarrassment more, through the physiological effects using different types of equipment, to see whether they still increase during and after the embarrassing task. Another one could be to measure the effects of different types of social phobias, such as avoidant personality disorders (ADP) that Hofman (1995) looked at. This could help understand the reasons behind social phobic people and help them get over their fear.
In conclusion, the results for the current study have shown that the physiological effects, such as blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) and GSR increase during and after the experiment. If the participants have a social phobia, higher arousal levels are recorded than participants without a social phobia. To expand the study more physiological effects are needed to be investigated, including blushing to gain more evidence and to make the study more valid.
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