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UC Researcher Examines Stress on the Road

University of Cincinnati Psychology Professor Gerry Matthews has dedicated his career to examining the effects of what’s now called a major health problem in the U.S.

Date: 7/28/2008
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Dottie Stover
Gerry Matthews, a University of Cincinnati professor of psychology in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), explores how stress and mood can affect performance. It’s not just an issue that can take a toll in the workplace. It can also affect drivers on the road, a key concern during the summer holidays that are popular for long drives.
Gerry Matthews
Gerry Matthews

The American Psychological Association (APA), of which Matthews is a member, recently warned that stress and its toll on Americans is becoming a major health issue in the U.S. In an APA survey of 1,848 adult Americans released last fall, the organization reported that one-third of those surveyed reported living with extreme stress, while 48 percent felt that their stress levels increased over the past five years. The APA reported that money and work were the leading concerns, and that was before the steady price increases at the gas pump and the grocery.

One of Matthews’ primary research interests is how stress and fatigue affect the performance of drivers. He has an extensive publishing background on driver stress and its impact on safety, as well as research relating to stress, personality and performance.

The UC Psychology Department’s Human Perception and Performance Lab has a driving simulator that supports this research. Specifically, the lab can create situations on the virtual highway that cause:

  • Feelings of anxiety/loss of control (like hitting a patch of ice)
  • Situations that cause driver fatigue
  • Demanding or overloading tasks while driving, such as driving against strong gusts of wind
  • Driver frustration (like traffic jams, one of the challenges for Cincinnati rush-hour drivers)

Human Perception and Performance Lab
Human Perception and Performance Lab

Matthews says fatigue induced by monotony is the most dangerous to driver performance, and he says data have also shown that the personality of the driver determines his or her vulnerability to stress (for instance, aggressive drivers are most likely to take risks when they’re frustrated and angry).

His recent research has also delved into the car of the future – car automation – and found that the “driverless” car does not protect the person in the driver’s seat from driver fatigue.

Matthews’ research in collaboration with psychology professor Joel Warm has also examined how a loss of vigilance and sustained attention coincides with a decline in cerebral blood flow. In other words, under monotonous, fatiguing conditions, blood flow in the brain falls over a relatively short time period, implying that the loss of attention during driving can develop quite quickly. His examination of task and cranial blood flow has also applied to research on soldiers performing mentally demanding long missions in the field.

Gerry Matthews

Matthews is the inventor of a stress test – a questionnaire that measures three types of stress symptoms: task and engagement, stress and distractibility/loss of concentration, and worry. This Dundee Stress State Questionnaire has been used on studies he has conducted on general populations, such as customer-service reps.

Matthews says that when it comes to coping with stress, there are three typical strategies. “There’s the problem-focused strategy, where you’re developing concrete and organized strategies to address the problem. Second, there’s emotion-based coping, in which a person is not as concerned about attacking the problem as one is about changing that person’s own feelings and thoughts about the problem. And third, there’s avoidance coping, a way of trying to shut out the problem by distracting yourself from the problem.” The key to finding the best coping strategy, says Matthews, is to find the best strategy for the problem that’s being addressed.

Stress, adds Matthews, is not all bad. “Oh, definitely, some stress is good for you. It helps you keep in touch with real dangers and threats. What’s often said of the stress relationship is that it’s not necessarily the stress that can cause harm, but rather the failure to find a successful coping strategy for a particular stressor. People who can cope effectively can thrive and succeed,” Matthews says.