Measuring stress: self-report scales (Social Readjustment Rating Scales and Hassles and Uplift Scales) and physiological measures including, skin conductance response.

Description, AO1 – Measuring Stress: Self-Report Scales and Physiological Methods

There are many scales used to measure stress. Some measures rely on individuals to report their own stress levels (e.g. self-report methods – questionnaires etc..) whereas, other measures adopt a more objective approach. These are known as physiological measures.

So far, you have dealt with a number of self-report methods as a way of measuring stress. Have a go at summarising how these measures work in the box below.

(1) The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS): Developed by Holmes and Rahe (1964)

* How this scale was developed:

Holmes and Rahe (1964) were the first to record the effects of life events. From their work in hospitals, Holmes and Rahe noticed that certain life events in their patients seemed to be associated with stress and poor health (e.g. heart disease). They claimed that the greater the life change, the greater the stress and the more serious the illness.

Holmes and Rahe examined 5000 patient hospital records and identified 43 life changes that appeared to cluster in the months preceding their illnesses.

They gathered 394 participants and asked them to score each life event in terms of how much readjustment would be required by the average person, compared to marriage (to which a random value of 50 was assigned). If an event would take longer to readjust to than marriage, then they were told to give the event a larger score, scores from all 394 participants were totaled and averaged to produce a life change units (LCU’s) for each life event.

* How this scale is used:

Participants are asked to report all of the life events that they have experienced in a 12 month period. Participants are to add the scores of these life events together in order to create a total Life Change Unit Score (LCU).

* What findings have been produced as a result of using this scale?

Holmes and Rahe found that there was a positive correlation between the LCU score and illness. The higher the LCU score, the more likely individuals are to become ill. Holmes and Rahe stated that a high LCU score indicates a high level of stress which in turn causes illness.

(2) The Hassles and Uplifts Scale (HSUP): Developed by Kanner (1981)

* Why was this scale developed?

This scale was developed in order to see if there was a link between daily hassles and stress related illness and whether or not encountering daily uplifts could counter act the negative effect of daily hassles.

* Describe how this scale is used?

Each participant completed the Hassles and Uplift Scale (HSUP), for events over the previous month and continued to do this once a month for the next 9 months. Participants also completed a life events scale for the six months preceding the beginning of the study and also for the two-yearly period after that. Finally, they completed it again at the end of the study.  Two measures were used to assess health and well-being – The Hopkins Symptoms Checklist (assess symptoms such as anxiety and depression) and The Bradburn Morale Scale (assess positive and negative emotions) – participants completed these scales every month.

* What findings have been produced as a result of using this scale?

Findings have suggested a positive correlation between daily hassles and stress related illness. The higher the score on the daily hassles scale the more an individual is to report illness suggesting that daily hassles cause stress which in turn causes illness. There is a stronger correlation between hassles, stress and illness than there is between life events, stress and illness.

Evaluation, AO3 of Self-Report Scales as a Way of Measuring Stress


(1) Point: One of the major criticism of the HSUP scale is that it is a very long questionnaire containing over 250 items. Evidence: This means that it is likely that respondents don’t maintain thoughtful, focused attention throughout completing the scale. Test-retest correlations support the idea that respondents don’t maintain full concentration as the correlation co-efficient figure is only 0.48 for scores on severity ratings of hassles (weak positive correlation and a higher score of 0.60 frequency ratings of uplifts (stronger positive correlation. Evaluation: This is a weakness because it shows that participants scores lack reliability.


(2) Point: The ratings for the individual life events on the SRRS ignores individual differences: Evidence: For example, some people hate Christmas and find it stressful and therefore would view it as having a high LCU score (a large amount of readjust would need to take place), whereas others do not view Christmas as being stressful and therefore would view it has having a low LCU score. Evaluation: This is a problem as the SRRS can be criticised for not accurately measuring the stress associated with life events for each individual and therefore can be seen to be lacking internal validity.



(1) Point: However, a strength of both the SRRS and HSUP scales is that they have a continuing influence to research. Evidence: For example, both the SRRS and HSUP scale are used in many current studies and, if not those scales, adaptations of these scales are used. Evaluation: This is a strength because the continued use of these scales highlights that psychologists view these questionnaires to have a great deal of credibility.


Description, A01 – Measuring Stress: Self-Report Scales and Physiological Methods

Now we’re going to have a look at the different physiological measures that are used to measure stress.

(1) Skin Conductance Response:

Immediate stress is linked to the sympathetic arousal of the autonomic nervous system which results in the production of two hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline.

The release of these hormones cause a variety of physiological responses in the body including:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increase in sweating

Scientists in the 19th century realised that skin is electrically active and that this electrical activity is conducted when the skin is wet (skin conductance response).

As sweat is produced, the amount of electricity that is conducted increases.

This effect is strongest in the palms of the hands and soles of the feet (because there is a high density of eccrine sweat glands at these points – glands which are responsive to emotional stimuli).

To measure the skin conductance response, two electrodes are placed on a person’s index and middle finger.

A very small voltage (0.5v) is applied across these electrodes. By measuring the current that flows, conductance can be reported (in microSiemens).

(2) Other Physiological Measures:

A simple way to assess stress is to measure blood pressure.

Kamarck et al (1990) looked at the effect of social support on stress by measuring blood pressure and heart rate before doing a set of mental tasks and again afterwards.

Those participants who had a close same sex friend holding their wrist throughout the task were less stressed.

Cortisol is the hormone produced as a response to ongoing stressors and can be measured in saliva or urine.

Gunnar et al (2010) assessed stress in children (3-4½ years) by measuring salivary cortisol. Children in day care showed higher stress levels, and these were highest in situations of intrusive, over-controlling care.

Evaluation, AO3 – Measuring Stress: Physiological Measures


(1) Point: Using physiological measures avoids some of the problems associated with self-report measures. Evidence: For example, using physiological methods avoids things like social desirability because participants are not asked to independently judge their stress levels. The measures that are used are independent of the participant and objective. Evaluation: This is a strength because removing participant judgement is more likely to produce accurate results, allowing the experimenter to measure what they are intending to measure – this will increase internal validity.


(2) Point: However, an issue with using physiological measures is that what is actually being measured is sympathetic arousal, which occurs in response to any emotion, it may not just be stress that causes the activity of the SNS. Evidence: For example, it could be that the participant is experiencing fear, anger, surprise or sexual arousal which would all lead to increased sweat and increased skin conductance. Evaluation: This is a weakness because it may be the cause that the test isn’t actual measuring what it intends to measure (i.e. the stress response) which could cause inaccurate results.

Back to the strengths:

Point: However, a strength of skin conductance response is that it has led to other applications/uses. Evidence: For example, skin conductance response has been used as a way of determining whether someone is lying – the polygraph or lie detector test. Evaluation: This is a strength because to have such a test is very appealing because it would make it so easy to detect dishonesty.

However: as previously discussed, the skin conductance test is not a very dependable measure of deceitfulness. Furthermore, Oshumi and Ohira found that psychopaths generally lack emotional responsiveness which means they can lie without any associated physiological response.