Cortisol and vagal tone responses to competitive challenge in preschoolers: Associations with temperament

Bonny Donzella, Megan R. Gunnar, William K. Krueger, Jan Alwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

112 Scopus citations


Sixty-one 3- to 5-year-old nursery school children participated in a study of temperament and stress responses to competition. Each child individually participated in a competition against a familiar adult experimenter to determine who would win enough games to receive a prize. After initially winning three games (Win Period), the children lost the next three games (Lose Period), before winning the final games and receiving the prize. Salivary cortisol, vagal tone, affect and turn-taking behavior were measured in response to the competition and examined in relation to child temperament using a teacher-report version of the Child Behavior Questionnaire. Behavioral measures indicated that the procedures were emotionally engaging and the threat of losing was aversive. Surgency (extroversion) was positively correlated with positive affect during Win periods and tense/angry affect during the Lose period of the competition. Vagal tone decreased as the children began to play against the adult and children who were more tense/angry while losing showed additional suppression of vagal tone when they began to lose the competition. Most of the children did not show a cortisol response to the competition; however, the 15% who increased cortisol (responses > 1 SD of classroom baselines) were described by teachers as more surgent and lower in effortful control. All but one of these children who increased in cortisol was male. Cortisol responsive children also displayed higher levels of tense/angry affect during the Lose period. Surgent, extroverted children appear to be vulnerable to competition stress. (C) 2000 John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-220
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental psychobiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2000


  • Cortisol
  • Stress
  • Temperament
  • Vagal tone


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