The Psychological Effects of Stress

Frustration, conflict, and anxiety have various effects on the organism. In the last module we examined the physiological reactions to stress and noted that changes in the autonomic nervous system which accompany chronic anxiety or hostility can have damaging effects on the organism. We will now consider specific behavioral reactions to psychological stress. Two main courses of action are available to a frustrated individual: fight or flight. In the following pages we will see how the individual's responses, while roughly falling within one or the other of these patterns, may be either adaptive or maladaptive.

As you read the text, try to answer the following questions.

The way an individual responds to stress is determined to a certain extent by the nature of the conflict or frustration. Generally speaking, mild frustration may often lead to adaptive behavior, while more severe frustration may lead to maladaptive reactions. However reaction to stress is also a function of the individual's learning or experience. For example, in one situation an individual may be able to stand a great deal more than in others. This tolerance depends in part upon what he experienced in similar situations and what he anticipates will happen next. Thus, we can only conclude that frustration tolerance is dependent on both the person and the situation.


When an external barrier stands between a motivated individual and his goal, he normally tries to circumvent, remove, or otherwise overcome the barrier. In a similar manner, he will try to relieve the tension produced by conflict and anxiety. Thus, increase of tension may actually help the individual to focus his attention more firmly on his goal.

Sometimes an obstacle just stimulates more innovative or strenuous effort

Within limits, the more our striving behavior is blocked, the harder we try to overcome the barrier. The barrier may be seen by some individuals as a challenge which must be met. Thus, by intensifying his striving, the individual may compensate for certain deficiencies within himself or his environment. A good example of compensation is the high achievement of certain minority group members in the face of barriers put up by society.

A moderate increase in tension may force us to search for new paths to a goal and highlight certain features of a situation which we had not noticed previously. Birch (1945) did a series of experiments with chimpanzees to determine the relationship between motivation and problem solving. From these experiments, he concluded:

When motivation is very low the animals are easily diverted from the problem by extraneous factors, and behavior tends to deteriorate into a series of non- goal-directed acts.

Very intense motivation, on the other hand, tended to disrupt problem-solving efforts. The most effective behavior occurred under moderate stress. Birch noted the following:

Those animals who worked . . . under intermediate conditions of motivational intensity ... were not so dominated by the desire to obtain the food that they were incapable of responding to other relevant features of the problem situation. The behavior was characterized by both direction and flexibility in response.

Escaping a conflict by choosing a third alternative is a common human reaction to an avoidance-avoidance conflict. Increased tension makes an individual seek more widely and perceive an available substitute that will satisfy the need or desire. Later we will examine some of the less constructive aspects of attempts to leave or escape from the field.


The threshold varies with the individual and with the situation

We have already noted that chimpanzees who were too highly motivated were incapable of effective problem solving. When tension builds up beyond a certain point, goal-directed activity is disrupted and may be accompanied by emotional agitation which interferes with efforts to solve the problem. Extreme tension may also lead to "cognitive narrowing." The individual's efforts and attention are so focused on the blocked pathways and goal that he is blind to the existence of alternative paths or substitute goals. The threshold level at which tension affects behavior varies from individual to individual. In addition, each individual can withstand varying degrees of tension, depending on the situation. However, once a threshold level is exceeded, any of several disruptive effects of frustration appear.

In 1939, a group of Yale psychologists, Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears, formulated the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Stated in their words: "The proposition is that the occurrence of aggressive behavior always presupposes the existence of frustration and, contrariwise, that the existence of frustration always leads to some form of aggression" (Dollard et a/., 1939, p. 1). In its simplest form, aggression is a direct attack upon the obstacle or barrier. Very often, however, the person cannot express aggression directly at the source of frustration, either because that source is dangerous or because doing so conflicts with various social standards. Modern man's very existence is dependent upon his living in social groups in which aggression is curbed. Direct aggression may indeed temporarily relieve tension, but in the long run social disapproval and punishment will arouse strong feelings of guilt and anxiety. This, in turn, creates a new source of conflict.

When the individual sees the source of frustration as one that can punish aggression directed towards it, he will direct his hostile feelings toward some object or person who is less threatening. Dollard et a/. (1939, p. 12) gives an example of a college student driving his date to a football game:

Suddenly a siren sounded behind him, and when he stopped, the traffic of fficer reprimanded him severely and in a very insulting manner for "driving like a high-school kid. " The sound of the siren and the of fficer's intrusion immediately destroyed both his rapport with the girl and the happy anticipations he had had As soon as he was permitted to drive ahead, he began berating the manners of the officer and telling the girl that the police in that state were notorious for their bullying methods. During the remainder of the drive he seemed to have cliff culty with his car; he grated the gears frequently in shifting, refused to let other cars pass him, and made insulting comments about every policeman who came in sight.

In this case, the student displaced his aggression to less threatening objects, that is, he "took it out" on the gears of the car and on other drivers.

Instances of displaced aggression are abundant; for example, historical data reveal that Iynchings used to increase when economic indicesÄespecially the farm value of cotton went down. A correlation of .67 is shown between lynchings and economic indices for the years 1882 to 1930 (Dollard et al., 1939). The merchants, landlords, and other wealthy persons who controlled the economic situation had the power to punish any direct aggression. Hence, the aggression was directed toward persons who were unable to hit back.

Sometimes when an individual is afraid to express his hostility openly, he turns it upon himself. In such cases agressive feelings result in lowered self- esteem. Many defense mechanisms, such as repression and rationalization, protect the individual from self-hatred associated with anxiety.

Although aggression is a common response to frustration and conflict, it is not the only response. When an individual experiences excessive tension due to frustration or conflict, he may simply try to leave the situation. The person in an avoidance-avoidance conflict may escape the uncomfortable situation through daydreams or fantasies. Or he may recreate in his mind the carefree world of childhoodÄthat is, he may regress.

When normal behavior is ineffective, we try other behaviors in our repertory often, earlier ones

When we do not succeed in breaking through a barrier or resolving a conflict by constructive responses, we sometimes revert to earlier, less mature behavior. All of us possess a hierarchy of possible responses for a given situation which we acquired in the process of growing up. If the preferred response fails, we may regress to the next most promising response. For example, a child who wants to open a door may first try using several keys. Next, he may revert to pushing and shaking. When that does not work, he may even hit and kick the door or cry. In an experiment by Barker, Dembo, and Lewin (1941), preschool children, after playing happily with incomplete toys, were frustrated by the sight of inaccessible complete toys. As a result of this frustration, the constructive play of the children deteriorated markedly. Twenty-five of the thirty subjects regressed to play typical of younger children. The average regression in mental age was rated by observers at 17 months.

Extreme tension may also lead to cognitive narrowing, that is, the individual's attention is so focused on the blocked pathways that he is blind to any alternative ways of acting. When frustration is produced by or coupled with punishment, extremely rigid and nonadaptive behavior may result. Stereotyped behavior may persist even when the barrier is removed and the goal is readily accessible. An experiment by Maier (1949) illustrates this kind of behavior. A rat was first taught to jump from a stand to knock over one of two stimulus cards behind which he would find food. Jumping to the wrong card resulted in a bumped nose and a fall into a net below. When he had learned this discrimination, frustration was introduced by making the problem insoluble. Regardless of which card the rat selected, he was rewarded 50 percent of the time and punished 50 percent of the time, on a random basis. Under these conditions the rat soon refused to jump altogether. When forced to do so by a shock to its tail, it adopted a "position habit,' of jumping to the same side all the time. In many rats this behavior became so rigid that even when the card in front of the food was removed and the food was plainly in sight, they continued to jump to the "fixated" side.

During extreme stress, human beings often lose the flexibility of response necessary for problem solving. To an observer, their behavior may seem stupid. Watching a frustrated person, we are often tempted to say, "All he has to do is ...," but the frustrated person is too blind to see what might be more successful alternatives.

We have already noted in the module on anxiety that some of the ways in which an individual behaves in order to reduce or avoid anxiety are referred to as defense mechanisms. Defensive reactions, then, are reactions which defend the individual not so much from frustration as from the anxiety that stems from the frustration.

Repression is a form of unintentional self-deception

When we exclude an unpleasant experience or impulse from awareness without even being conscious of doing so, we are using a defense mechanism called repression. Hostility is repressed, for example, when the individual is not even aware of his impulse to be aggressive. A person who has two incompatible motives may fool himself into believing that a conflict does not exist. This will not resolve his conflict, but it will relieve him of some anxiety. Repression forms the basis for other, closely related mechanisms of defense. These other ways of dealing with conflict act to disguise some aspect of one of the conflicting motivesÄthe nature of the motive, who has the motive, or the goal of the motive.

A person may sincerely believe that his imagined motive is the opposite of his real motive. In this way he strengthens his defenses against an unwanted thought or desire. For example, someone who finds he cannot accept his sexual desires as normal may unconsciously repress them and adopt an extremely puritanical attitude towards sex. This is called reaction- formation.

An individual may project his unwanted traits onto others, that is, he may unconsciously attribute his unacceptable thoughts to someone else. Through projection, the person's aggressive feelings can be directed toward others, rather than toward himself. Thus, projection enables the individual to blame other people for his own shortcomings, thereby protecting his self- esteem. For example, the person who has a tendency to be overcritical might "discover" this trait in others and deny the existence of the trait in himself.

When the fox who could not reach the delicious-looking grapes decided that they were sour anyway, he was using the defense mechanism known as rationalization. When we rationalize, we unconsciously devise explanations for a situation that would otherwise end in loss of self-esteem. For example, a jilted lover may suddenly decide that his former girl friend had many faults.

A motive which cannot be gratified in reality can be at least partly satisfied in fantasy or daydreaming. Everyone at one time or another spends some time daydreaming. Used creatively, fantasy helps us find new ways of solving problems. Only when it is used persistently as an escape from dealing with reality is it considered a maladjustive mechanism.

Generally, that is true of all defense mechanisms. Used in moderation, selfdeception helps to reduce tension and is harmless. However, if defense mechanisms are used excessively to avoid facing chronic and severe conflicts, they can be harmful.


Now test yourself without looking back.

1. An individual's response to stress depends on:<>BR> a. the kind of conflict in which he finds himself.
b. the behavior he learned in the past when faced by a similar conflict.
c. (neither)

2. Compensation is one of the ways individuals relieve the tension produced by frustration. When an individual compensates he may:
a. avoid the problem by choosing a third alternative.
b. intensify the striving to overcome a barrier.
c. find new paths to a goal.

3. If goal-directed activity is disrupted due to excessive tension, clear thinking is interfered with because of cognitive________________________________________________________.

4. Miller and Bugelski studied the effects of frustration at a boys' summer camp. The boys had to participate in an uninteresting testing session which deprived them of their weekly trip to the local theatre. It was found that after the frustrating testing session, the boys showed significantly more hostility toward minority groups (Mexicans and Japanese) then they had previously. The tester was neither Mexican nor Japanese.

The above is an example of:
a. attacking the barrier itself directly either physically or symbolically.
b. displaced aggression, the aggression being displaced to an innocent bystander.
c. directing one's hostile feelings to another individual when the actual barrier cannot be attacked directly.
d. (none of these)

5. When an individual does not succeed in overcoming a barrier, he may regress to____________________________________________________

6. A frustrated person whose trial-and-error behavior is not variable and flexible is said to be exhibiting__________________________________________________

7. Match.

1) A defense mechanism operating unconsciously which banishes unacceptable ideas or impulses from consciousness __________________________________

2) The disguising of a motive so completely that it is expressed in a form that is directly opposite to its original intent _____________________________________

3) The disguising of a source of conflict by ascribing one's motives to someone else______________________

4) Daydreaming and imagining a world of one's own ______________________________

5) The interpretation of one's own behavior so as to conceal the motive it expresses and to assign the behavior to some other motive_________________________________________

a. Repression
b. Projection
c. Reaction-formation
d. Rationalization
e. Fantasy



Tolerance of frustration is dependent on both__________________________________________and __________________________________________5

Teddy Roosevelt, physically puny as a youth, devoted a major part of his life to building up his physical strength. Roosevelt's adjustment to frustration took the form of:

a. substitution of a goal.
b. projection.
c. compensation.
d. showing oft.

Problem solving is most likely to take place when_____________________________is of intermediate level of intensity.

"I'm blue and all worn out all the time. I have spells when I feel like I could fly into a thousand pieces. I can't make up my mind what to do. I let my wife boss me all the time. The easiest way would be to have a train wreck. I'm a whipped man. I've worked hard all my life, and now I haven't anything." (Hathaway and Meehl, 1951)

In this example, the individual is expressing self-hatred. His lack of self-esteem and his extreme depression are probably due to:
a. the hostility which his wife directs at him.
b. aggressive feelings towards others which he nas displaced to himself.
c. having had bad luck all his life.
d. (none of these)

Reverting to earlier, less mature behavior when the individual does and not succeed in breaking through a barrier is known as____________________________________________3

The tendency to persist in the same kind of behavior regardless of the stimulus conditions is called:
a. repression.
b. projection.
c. regression.
d. rigidity.
______________________________________________ 2

Mr. Hill lost most of his life's savings in the stock exchange. However, he tells all his friends that he now feels much relieved by the consequent lack of responsibility and worry which he suffered previously. Mr. Hill is using the defense mechanism called:
a. rationalization.
b. repression.
c. alteration.
d. projection.
e. sublimation.
________________________________________ 6

Mrs. Johnson's rigid upbringing has made her afraid of her own sexual impulses. She sincerely believes that sex should not be the subject matter of movies and is very active in several committees for reviewing movies to determine their suitability for young audiences. In this way she gratifies her unconscious wish to see "sex" movies without the feelings of guilt she would have if she were conscious of her motive. Mrs. Johnson's behavior shows that she is using the defense mechanism of:
a. rationalization.
b. denial.
c. projection.
d. reaction-formation.



1 c
2 d
3 regression
4 motivation
5 the person and the situation
6 a
7 d
8 b


1. Within certain limits, increased tension may help one focus one's attention more firmly on________________________________________________

2. Compensation enables a person to:
b. disguise a weak or undesirable trait by overcoming it or by emphasizing a desirable trait.
c. substitute unbearable ideas, impulses, or feelings with more socially acceptable ones.

3. Problem solving is most likely to take place when motivation is:
a. very high.
b. intermediate.
c. very low.

4. In dealing with frustration, one may vent one's hostile feelings or aggression by:
a. attacking the barrier itself directly.
b. attacking the barrier symbolically.
c. displacing one's aggression to objects or innocent bystanders.
d. directing one's aggression toward one's self.

5. When children in the Barker, Dembo, and Lewin experiment (1941) were frustrated over not being able to reach desirable toys, they played in a more childish manner. The children's less constructive play was a manifestation of:
a. progression.
b. regression.
c. repression.
d. projection.

6. Rigidity is the tendency to__________________________________________ regardless of the stimulus conditions.

7. Used in moderation, defense mechanisms:
a. are harmful.
b. lead to neurosis.
c. help to reduce tension.




Unit 10 Table of Contents

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Oct. 27, 2005