In Search of Integrated Specificity: Comment on Denson, Spanovic, and Miller (2009)

Gregory E. Miller*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Psychologists have long been interested in the integrated specificity hypothesis, which maintains that stressors elicit fairly distinct behavioral, emotional, and biological responses that are molded by selective pressures to meet specific demands from the environment. This issue of Psychological Bulletin features a meta-analytic review of the evidence for this proposition by T. F. Denson, M. Spanovic, and N. Miller (2009). Their review concluded that the meta-analytic findings support the "core concept behind the integrated specificity model" (p. 845) and reveal that "within the context of a stressful event, organisms produce an integrated and coordinated response at multiple levels (i.e., cognitive, emotional, physiological)" (p. 845). I argue that conclusions such as this are unwarranted, given the data. Aside from some effects for cortisol, little evidence of specificity was presented, and most of the significant findings reported would be expected by chance alone. I also contend that Denson et al. failed to consider some important sources of evidence bearing on the specificity hypothesis, particularly how appraisals and emotions couple with autonomic nervous system endpoints and functional indices of immune response. If selective pressures did give rise to an integrated stress response, such pathways almost certainly would have been involved. By omitting such outcomes from the meta-analysis, Denson et al. overlooked what are probably the most definitive tests of the specificity hypothesis. As a result, the field is back where it started: with a lot of affection for the concept of integrated specificity but little in the way of definitive evidence to refute or accept it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)854-856
Number of pages3
JournalPsychological bulletin
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2009


  • cortisol
  • emotion
  • immune function
  • stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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