The Illocutionary Force of Hurt and Support in Young Adult Romantic Relationships: Message Feature Ratings, Message Perceptions, and Physiological stress

Open Access
Johnson, Jennifer Susan
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 02, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Denise Haunani Solomon, Dissertation Advisor
  • Roxanne Louise Parrott, Committee Member
  • Jon F Nussbaum, Committee Member
  • Sonia Angele Cavigelli, Committee Member
  • Denise Haunani Solomon, Committee Chair
  • Support
  • Hurt
  • Message Features
  • Physiological Stress
This dissertation is founded on the assumption that interpersonal communication experiences, especially as they relate to a person’s identity, are instrumental in physiological stress reactivity and recovery. Accordingly, the goal of the dissertation is to examine how features of interpersonal messages can vary in ways that impact stress. As a starting point, Chapter 1 reviews literature on the components of identity and explores how communication shapes identity. Given the central role of communication in the formation and maintenance of identity, the remainder of the chapter describes how communication can threaten and support identity. As a foundation for understanding the role of communication in the stress response, Chapter 2 describes the environmental, psychological, and physiological aspects of stress. Then, the chapter examines how identity disconfirming messages can initiate the stress response through the perception of threat and how identity confirming messages can reduce physiological stress by changing perceptions of a stressful situation. In Chapter 3, illocutionary force, or the strength of a message, is identified as a theoretical mechanism for understanding how messages can impact physiological stress. The chapter begins by explicating illocutionary force. Then, the ways that message features and message perceptions can vary in force and impact the magnitude of the stress response are examined. Consistent with this logic, hypotheses specify the associations between perceived explicitness, argument strength, involvement, hurt, support, dominance, and affiliation and stress responses to interactions with a dating partner. Chapter 4 describes the methods of a study designed to assess the impact of hurtful messages on stress reactivity. The chapter begins by discussing the procedures and results of a pilot study that evaluated the extent to which hurtful messages from a dating partner initiated a stress response. Then, the chapter describes the demographic characteristics of the participants who completed Study 1. Finally, Chapter 4 summarizes the self-report and observational measures used to test some of the hypotheses forwarded in Chapter 3. Chapter 5 presents the results of Study 1 and discusses the implications for the study of hurtful messages. A series of regression analyses were conducted to test the relationships between the rated message features and stress reactivity to hurtful messages. Stress reactivity was operationalized in two ways: area under the curve with respect to increase and area under the curve with respect to ground. The results of the analyses provided partial support for the hypotheses. The perceived message features did not directly predict increases in physiological stress; however, there were significant interactions between the rated message feature, self-reported perceptions of hurt, and partner involvement for each rated message feature. The perceived message features also did not predict the stability of cortisol change after a hurtful interaction. Chapter 6 presents methods and results of two pilot studies and the procedures used in Study 2 to assess the impact of supportive messages on stress recovery. First, the chapter describes a pilot study in which participants recalled recent stressful events to initiate the stress response. Second, the chapter describes the procedures used in the second pilot study and Study 2, in which participants completed a series of stressful tasks to induce stress reactivity and then engaged in a conversation with a dating partner. Finally, the chapter explains the self-report and observational measured used in Study 2 to test some of the hypotheses forwarded in Chapter 3. In Chapter 7, the results of Study 2 are presented. Rated explicitness, argument strength, and involvement all had a direct effect on recovery from the stressful tasks, providing support for the hypotheses. Observer ratings of supportiveness, dominance, and affiliation did not directly impact cortisol change. Finally, Chapter 8 discusses the implications of both studies for understanding the impact of illocutionary force on physiological stress and the relationship between communication and stress. The chapter also explores the practical applications of the findings. Finally, the chapter concludes by examining the strengths and weaknesses of the dissertation.