Paula Kaiser

Paula Kaiser

Master's Thesis

Influence of Social-Evaluative Stress in the Virtual Reality Stroop Room

Veronika König (M.Sc.)Robert Richer (M.Sc.), Markus Wirth (M.Sc.), Prof. Dr. Nicolas Rohleder (Chair of Health Psychology, FAU), Prof. Dr. Björn Eskofier

01 / 2022 – 07 / 2022

It has been long known that chronic stress influences the development of various illnesses, such as depression, cardiovascular disease, HIV, and certain types of cancer [1, 2]. To further study acute stress responses, researchers need standardized laboratory stress protocols. Those stress tests induce stress in a reliable and repeatable manner and make different studies more comparable. The Stroop Test is one of these regularly employed stressors [3].

Gradl et. al. extended the Stroop Test using virtual reality, and called it The Stroop Room – Virtual Reality-Enhanced Stroop Test (VRST). Their virtual environment is a hexagonal room where every wall has a different color. The participants are presented with a color word (e.g. green) whose font is in a (different) color. In arbitrary order, the task is to either select the wall corresponding to the read word or the font color. [4]

The human body responds to stress with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The activation of the HPA axis in turn triggers the release of stress hormones, most notably cortisol. Not all stressors lead to the same combination of biological responses. For instance, a cortisol release can most likely be provoked by conditions with social-evaluative threat and uncontrollability. [5–7]

Previous studies did not see any notable cortisol responses to the VRST, probably due the lack of social-evaluative threat [8]. The goal of this master’s thesis is therefore to study whether adding a social-evaluative component into the virtual environment triggers the HPA axis, measured by salivary cortisol. As psychosocial component a virtual agent that givesauditory and/or visual feedback will be developed and included into the VRST. Additionally, the possibility of using deep learning methods will be examined [9].

[1] H. Selye, “Stress and Disease,” Science, vol. 122, no. 3171, pp. 625–631, 1955.
[2] S. Cohen, D. Janicki-Deverts, and G. Miller, “Psychological stress and disease. JAMA, 298, 1685-1687,” JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 298, pp. 1685–7, Nov. 2007.
[3] F. Scarpina and S. Tagini, “The Stroop Color and Word Test,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, p. 557, Apr. 2017.
[4] S. Gradl, M. Wirth, N. Mächtlinger, R. Poguntke, A. Wonner, N. Rohleder, and B. Eskofier, “The Stroop Room: A Virtual Reality-Enhanced Stroop Test,” pp. 1–12, Nov. 2019.
[5] G. P. Chrousos, “Stress and disorders of the stress system,” Nature Reviews Endocrinology, vol. 5, pp. 374–381, July 2009.
[6] H. Selye, The Stress of Life. McGraw-Hill, 1956.
[7] S. Dickerson and M. Kemeny, “Acute Stressors and Cortisol Responses: A Theoretical Integration and Synthesis of Laboratory Research,” Psychological bulletin, vol. 130, pp. 355–91, June 2004.
[8] S. Gradl, The Stroop Room : A Wearable Virtual Reality Stress Laboratory Based on the Electrocardiogram. PhD thesis, FAU University Press, 2020.
[9] S. Dhere, S. B. Rathod, S. Aarankalle, Y. Lad, and M. Gandhi, “A Review on Face Reenactment Techniques,” in 2020 International Conference on Industry 4.0 Technology (I4Tech), pp. 191–194, Feb. 2020.