The within or across individual approach to predicting psychological challenge or threat

Recent study extends existing literature on psychological challenge and threat in several ways, adding physiological variables to define individually distinguishing patterns for challennge and threat states.



Title: “Analysis of Multimodal Physiological Signals Within and Across Individuals to Predict Psychological Threat vs. Challenge1


Challenge and threat are classically defined as the ratio of self-reported stress to the subjective assessment of the ability or resources to cope with tasks.

Following the Biopsychosocial Model in literature, the distinction between challenge and threat depends on patterns of cardiovascular physiological response to motivated performance tasks:  CHALLENGE is associated with enhanced ventricular contractility, increased cardiac output and decreasing total peripheral resistance, whereas THREAT states show increased total peripheral resistance and decreased cardiac output. The goal is to predict important outcomes like task performance, cooperative behavior or interpersonal relationships.

In this recent study, the study group from the University of Pittsburgh, the Northeastern University and the UCSF followed an individualized approach by identifying “person-specific physiological features that best differentiated physiological responding to tasks of varying difficulty” 1 in order to extend literature which so far mainly focused on group comparisons rather than examined challenge and threat responses at the individual level.

Enhancing the set of the commonly used cardiovascular response markers with additional physiological variables, such as measures of facial muscle activity, respiration or electrodermal activity, the scientists investigated the individual differences in threat and challenge during performance tasks with varying difficulty. They examined, if there are individuals sharing the same physiological features and characterized different groups by these “common salient features”.1 Further, the experts tried to answer the question if challenge and threat can be better predicted using “shared salient features within each group than when using the same set of physiological features for all individuals in the sample as a whole”.1

The study included 107 participants (41 males, 65 females). ECG, CNAP® continuous blood pressure, ICG, respiratory, fEMG, etc. were measured during mental arithmetic tasks with increasing difficulty for 3-4 hours.

The results show that “there are salient physiological features which dominate the differentiation of physiological response patterns within-individuals across tasks of varying difficulty. Individual differences were observed in terms of which physiological features are most salient for differentiating physiological responding across the tasks.”1 In total, three groups of individuals with common salient physiological features could be defined. Further, the individually-tailored set of physiological features highly improved classification accuracy of challenge and threat in comparison to using an identical set for all participants.1


Read abstract


1 Khalaf, A., Nabian, M., Fan, M., Yin, Y., Wormwood, J., Erika Siegel, P., … Ostadabbas, S. (2018). Analysis of Multimodal Physiological Signals Within and Across Individuals to Predict Psychological Threat vs. Challenge. PsyArXiv, web. http://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/96DJS

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