The Role of Agonistic Striving in the Association Between Cortisol and High Blood Pressure

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Abstract

Objective

A social action theory of chronic stress proposes that agonistic striving (seeking to influence or control others) impairs cardiovascular health by magnifying the impact of high adversity-induced cortisol levels on blood pressure. We tested three predictions of social action theory: (1) the social action theory taxonomy of regulatory strivings characterizes young adults from high-adversity neighborhoods; (2) high cortisol levels predict high blood pressure more reliably in the subgroup with the agonistic striving profile than in subgroups with other profiles; (3) the association of higher cortisol and higher blood pressure with agonistic striving is not explained by negative affect (depressive symptoms/dysphoria, anger, hostility).

Methods

Participants were young adults (N = 198, mean [SD] age = 32 [3.4] years); 71% female; 65% black) from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Motive profiles (including agonistic strivings) were assessed using the Social Competence Interview. Cortisol levels were derived from saliva samples; blood pressure level was obtained during two days of ambulatory monitoring. Psychological measures of negative affect were assessed using questionnaires.

Results

The predicted taxonomy of regulatory strivings was replicated in this sample; the interaction between cortisol and motive profile was significant (F(2, 91) = 6.72, p = .002); analyses of simple effects disclosed that higher cortisol levels predicted higher ambulatory blood pressure only in individuals who exhibited agonistic striving. Depressive symptoms/dysphoria, trait anger, and hostility were not correlated with agonistic striving, cortisol, or blood pressure.

Conclusions

Agonistic striving may represent a distinctive (and novel) social-cognitive mechanism of toxic stress and cardiovascular risk.

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