Speaking under pressure: Low linguistic complexity is linked to high physiological and emotional stress reactivity


  • We gratefully acknowledge all of the wonderful research assistants involved in this project as well as Elizabeth Page-Gould for her help. Study 1 was supported by the Haas Scholars' Program at the University of California at Berkeley. Study 2 was funded by a small grant from Diamond Foods, Incorporated. Laura Saslow was supported by NIH grant T32AT003997 from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Shannon McCoy was supported by NIH grant MH19391 from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Judith Moskowitz was supported by NIH grant K24 MH093225 from NIMH. The research was also supported by funds from the Fetzer Institute and the Metanexus Institute to Dacher Keltner and by funds to Elissa Epel by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, the Hellman Family Fund, the University of California, San Francisco, Pediatric Clinical Research Center (under the auspices of National Institute of Mental Health Grant M01-RR01271), the National Institute of Mental Health Award K08 MH64110-01A1, and a National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Young Investigator's Award.


What can a speech reveal about someone's state? We tested the idea that greater stress reactivity would relate to lower linguistic cognitive complexity while speaking. In Study 1, we tested whether heart rate and emotional stress reactivity to a stressful discussion would relate to lower linguistic complexity. In Studies 2 and 3, we tested whether a greater cortisol response to a standardized stressful task including a speech (Trier Social Stress Test) would be linked to speaking with less linguistic complexity during the task. We found evidence that measures of stress responsivity (emotional and physiological) and chronic stress are tied to variability in the cognitive complexity of speech. Taken together, these results provide evidence that our individual experiences of stress or “stress signatures”—how our body and mind react to stress both in the moment and over the longer term—are linked to how complex our speech under stress.