Abstract-Do interpersonal contexts modulate distress tolerance? Effects of cooperation and competition on persistence in an aversive task

The purpose of my project is to examine how different social circumstances may influence an individual’s distress tolerance. Distress tolerance (DT) represents an individual’s ability to withstand physical, emotional or cognitive discomfort during goal-oriented activity. Every time we do things like endure a frustrating wait in line, push through to finish that big paper or run that extra mile, we endure some sort of aversive experience in order to complete a goal-oriented task. Thus, our ability to tolerate distress is very important for day to day life, especially in occupational functioning. Distress tolerance is a construct that has been studied extensively in the field of abnormal psychology, and there are indications from the literature that people with symptoms of depression, anxiety and personality disorders have reduced DT relative to people without these problems. Right now, its unclear whether distress tolerance is a stable or situationally-dependent construct. I expect that it is a situationally-dependent construct. From an evolutionary standpoint, our decisions about how long to persist in an unpleasant scenario should be based on a cost-benefit analysis of whether the costs of persisting are worth the rewards, or if our energies are better conserved and used for other pursuits. The rewards for performance on social tasks, particularly cooperative and competitive tasks, are higher than those on non-social tasks, due to the implications for outside social factors like social inclusion, prestige, dominance, friendship, potential mating opportunities, etc. I hypothesize that our motivation to succeed and by extension our ability to tolerate distress in order to reach a goal should be higher in social than non-social tasks. We should be willing to incur greater costs in order to obtain these higher social rewards. I’m interested in how different social circumstances may affect a person’s distress tolerance capability, and whether people with certain personality traits or psychopathology symptoms have different responses to social circumstances than people without these characteristics. I’ll be investigating these questions and hypotheses using a within-subjects design where people must endure an aversive stimulus in three different conditions(competitive, cooperative or alone). Distress tolerance capabilities will be compared between the three conditions. I’ll also be using surveys to assess personality traits and whether people have symptoms of depression and anxiety, and will compare responses on these surveys with performance on the distress tolerance tasks. Hopefully this project will answer some questions about the nature of distress tolerance, as well as perhaps highlighting ways that people with certain symptoms or traits might struggle in social and occupational functioning. I think the results of my project could potentially have some interesting implications for how we think about how people with psychopathology navigate the social world. This process should be interesting and challenging, and I’m looking forward to getting started!