Anticipated Discrimination Increases Stress Response

Stress can lead to negative mental and physical health outcomes. People who undergo stressful experiences are at increased risk for psychological difficulties such as anxiety, worry, and fear. The physiologic responses resulting from acute stress also increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. Discrimination can even cause stress in people who merely perceive they are being treated unfairly. This relationship between discrimination and stress is well documented; however, the effect of anticipated discrimination on stress is less understood. If an individual is subject to negative health conditions from stress, if they are worried or anxious because they anticipate discrimination, perhaps this can increase their stress response as well, resulting in the same negative conditions. To determine if anticipated discrimination increased stress, Pamela J. Sawyer, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California at Santa Barbara led a study involving 27 Latina and 27 White college students.

Each Latina participant was instructed to give a 3-minute speech to a preselected White female partner. Prior to giving the speech, the Latinas received information that revealed whether their partner was racially prejudiced or not. After they read this information, the Latinas met with the White participants and gave their speeches. Sawyer measured the physical and emotional responses of the Latinas before and after the speeches. She found that the Latinas who were paired with prejudiced partners had elevated stress responses even before they met them. Based on physical data, their stress was raised in anticipation of a discriminatory experience. This suggests that individuals who believe a future threat exists will be vigilant and physically and emotionally respond to the anticipated threat with increased stress. In this study, this occurred even in the absence of any behavior, discriminatory or not, as the stress levels of the Latinas were elevated before meeting their White partners. Sawyer said, “These findings provide support for the claim that chronic vigilance for discrimination can potentially be as physically and psychologically meaningful as actually experiencing discrimination.”

Sawyer, P. J., Major, B., Casad, B. J., Townsend, S. S. M., Berry Mendes, W. (2012). Discrimination and the stress response: Psychological and physiological consequences of anticipating prejudice in interethnic interactions. American Journal of Public Health, 102.5, 120-126.

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  • Patrice Robbins

    Patrice Robbins

    May 22nd, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    Tell me this- why am I going to set myself up for all of this negativity if it hasn’t happened to me yet? If I am prejudging the situation I may find myself in, isn’t that kind of the same thing as what you are trying to guard yourself against?

  • Virginia


    May 22nd, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    Did meeting with a partner who they perceived to be prejudiced, did it increase stress or was that instead anger?

  • izzie


    May 23rd, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    That is horrible that there are those who are ruining their lives over nothing- if they would keep their minds a little more open then they would have a better sense for when a situation may set them up for being discriminated against and when it was actually not going to be harmful to them at all.

  • Raelena


    March 26th, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    Wow, these commenters are wild. The thing is that a minority person has no idea rather that discrimination is going to be a simple slur or a full on physical assault. We brace ourselves for the worst because otherwise, we might be dead. Of course in a controlled situation like this it is different, and may not be as extreme as an assault. But it’s still scary to think that the person in front of you thinks of you as subhuman.

    Dear Izzie, I think it’s horible that racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic people exist. THEY are the ones who need to keep their minds a little more open. Minorities are simply doing what they have to in order to survive.

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