Metabolic Brain Disease

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 385–394 | Cite as

The fear-factor stress test: an ethical, non-invasive laboratory method that produces consistent and sustained cortisol responding in men and women

  • Christopher du Plooy
  • Kevin G. F. Thomas
  • Michelle Henry
  • Robyn Human
  • W. Jake Jacobs
Original Paper


We describe a method to administer a controlled, effective stressor to humans in the laboratory. The method combines the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and the Cold Pressor Test into a single, believable procedure called the Fear-Factor Stress Test (FFST). In the procedure, participants imagine auditioning for the reality television show Fear Factor. They stand before a video recorder and a panel of judges while (a) delivering a motivational speech, (b) performing a verbal arithmetic task, and (c) placing one hand into a bucket of ice water for up to 2 min. We measured subjective anxiety, heart rate, and salivary cortisol in three groups of young adults (n = 30 each, equal numbers of men and women): FFST, TSST, and Control (a placebo version of the FFST). Although the FFST and TSST groups were not distinguishable at the cortisol measure taken 5 min post-manipulation, at 35 min postmanipulation average cortisol levels in the TSST group had returned to baseline, whereas those in the FFST group continued to rise. The proportion of individual cortisol responders (≥ 2 nmol/l increase over baseline) in the TSST and FFST groups did not differ at the 5-min measure, but at the 35-min measure the FFST group contained significantly more responders. The findings indicate that the FFST induces a more robust and sustained cortisol response (which we assume is a marker of an HPA-axis response) than the TSST, and that it does so without increasing participant discomfort or incurring appreciably greater resource and time costs.


Cold Pressor Test (CPT) Cortisol Hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis Physiological stressor Psychosocial stressor Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) 



This research was supported in part by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF). We thank Marc Dey for his help in formulating the Fear-Factor Stress Test, and Katharine James for her critique of the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher du Plooy
    • 1
  • Kevin G. F. Thomas
    • 1
  • Michelle Henry
    • 1
  • Robyn Human
    • 1
  • W. Jake Jacobs
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyACSENT Laboratory, University of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyAnxiety Research Group, University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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