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PLoS One. 2019 Feb 22;14(2):e0212703. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0212703. eCollection 2019.

Supportive hand-holding attenuates pupillary responses to stress in adult couples.

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Department of Psychology, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, United States of America.



Social relationships, particularly marriage, have been shown to ameliorate the potentially pathogenic impact of stressful events but prior research has been mostly aimed at downstream effects, with less research on real-time reactivity. Pupillometry is an innovative procedure that allows us to see the effects of acute stress in real time. The muscles that control pupil size are linked to the autonomic nervous system, so that when stressed, the pupils dilate; this occurs within 200ms. This quick response allows us to see the immediate effects of acute stress on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the real-time effects of social support in buffering stress.


The purpose of this study is to examine the dampening effects of received social support on the ANS's pupillary response.


Eighty individuals (40 couples) were randomly assigned to either a spousal support (i.e., spouse hand-holding) or non-support condition (i.e., alone) and administered a Stroop task while pupil dilation was measured.


The Stroop task elicited a stress reaction in terms of pupil dilation in response to the incongruent task trials. Participants in the support condition showed accelerated habituation to the stress task (p < .001), and less pupil reactivity (p < .001) providing evidence for buffering effects of social support via spousal presence and hand-holding.


These results reveal the speed at which stress-buffering occurs, suggesting that pupillometry could be a good method to address the immediate dampening effects of social support.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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