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USF Researcher Examines Psychophysiological Responses to Racism, Sexism and Effects on Heart Health

Kristen Salomon's research shows a strong link between discrimination and cardiovascular risk

Asked to name risk factors for heart disease, most of us would respond with diet, exercise, and family history.

USF social psychologist Kristen Salomon, PhD, is more likely to answer with racism or sexism, because her own research shows a strong connection between discrimination and cardiovascular risk.

“I primarily study the psychophysiology of stress, and specifically, our cardiovascular responses to stressful situations,” said Salomon, who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the USF College of Arts and Sciences. “Prior research has shown that these responses are predictors of our future risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Kristen Salomon, PhD | Department of Psychology.  

By “stressful situations,” Dr. Salomon refers not just to everyday annoyances — the long commute or unexpected bill — but also to more profound stressors, such as discrimination.

“We have all experienced the stress that comes with certain performance situations, such as giving a speech or doing math aloud, while others are watching us. Do we sound dumb? Are we doing it right? Those situations really get the heart rate going,” she said.

“My research expands that to look at the stress that results when we feel we are being treated in a rude or unfair manner, or when someone is saying things to us that could be perceived as racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination.”

Dr. Salomon’s 2008 study, “Resting Cardiovascular Levels and Reactivity to Interpersonal Incivility Among Black, Latina/o, and White Individuals: The Moderating Role of Ethnic Discrimination,” published in the peer-reviewed journal Health Psychology, revealed that the relationship between discrimination and cardiovascular risk may differ by ethnicity.

In that study, Salomon asked white, black, and Latino participants to complete a questionnaire. Then, a member of her research team feigned exasperation, telling members of each group they had done the survey incorrectly and would therefore have to complete an interview.

“The research accomplice, who was white, was very dismissive and rude in order to make the participants feel they didn’t know what they were doing,” Dr. Salomon said. “We used the same procedure for all three groups, the assumption being that the minorities might perceive this treatment as a form of racial discrimination.”

During their interactions with the research accomplice, Dr. Salomon and her team measured the participants’ heart rate and blood pressure.

“We found that the white participants were most reactive; they had the biggest increases in heart rate and blood pressure,” she said. “For the Latino participants, their level of reactivity depended on how much discrimination they have experienced in their lives. The more they have experienced, the less reactive they were. The African-Americans didn’t react at all. This tells us that they commonly experience incivility with white individuals, which may have led them to disengage from the situation. They also may have more developed coping mechanisms for responding to instances of discrimination.”

In 2015, Dr. Salomon applied her research to gender relations. In “Flash Fire and Slow Burn: Women’s Cardiovascular Reactivity and Recovery Following Hostile and Benevolent Sexism,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Dr. Salomon found that perceived instances of gender discrimination resulted in increased heart rate and blood pressure in female participants.

Cardiovascular responses varied with the degree of the perceived sexism, Dr. Salomon added.

Participants recovered quickly after incidents of hostile sexism, created when a member of her team made the statement, “Girls aren’t good at this task anyway, so I’m going to get rid of the hard section.” Meanwhile, participants’ heart rate and blood pressure took longer to return to normal after benevolent forms of sexism, exhibited through the statement, “Girls don’t like the hard section, so I’m going to go ahead and get rid of it for you.”

“We think that benevolent sexism led the women to rumination,” she said. “Long afterward, they were thinking, ‘Gosh, he didn’t give me the hard section. That was nice but it was also sexist, right?’” Dr. Salomon said. “Recovery from stress also predicts future risk of heart disease.”

Dr. Salomon is now researching post-stress processes, such as rumination rather than moving on, and the resulting effects on heart health.

“Our bodies respond to stress for a really good reason, which is to motivate behavior to help deal with that stressor,” she said. “Evolutionarily speaking, when we ran into the bear the woods, our body’s reaction would help us fight or flee the bear. The stress response is there to support some sort of mobilization of energy and effort to deal with the situation or get out of it.”

“Modern-day stressors aren’t bears in the woods. We have to find psychological ways to manage our responses to stress. The accumulation of stress produces wear and tear on our systems.”

Dr. Salomon and USF School of Social Work Interim Director and Associate Professor Alison Salloum, PhD, are also currently conducting a $1.6-million National Institute of Mental Health study examining children’s physiological responses to therapy after trauma.

- Story by Rachel Pleasant, Photo by Freddie Coleman

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