Document Type


Publication details

Alexander, JM 2006, 'The role of psycho-social experience in chronic disease', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright JM Alexander 2006


This study examines the role of psycho-social factors in contributing to chronic illness, in particular Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and cancer. Research conducted over the last 50 years indicates a modest role for psycho-social factors as risk factors for these conditions. The research suggests that in combination with other modest risk factors, psycho-social factors play an equally important role. Grossarth-Maticek & Eysenck (1990) gained notoriety by reporting research results which seriously question current wisdom. Grossarth-Maticek & Eysenck (1990) conducted what must be considered the largest long term prospective psychological health study. They followed around 20,000 probands for 15 years in order to determine the relative contributions to health outcomes (primarily cancer and CHD) of standard medical and psycho-social risk factors. They reported an 81% accuracy of prediction of death by cancer or CHD with the use of a psychometric test. Further, answers to the test were reported to be six times more predictive of cancer or CHD than were any of the standard medical risk factors, either taken on their own or together.

Being far in excess of claims made by any other researchers, the treatment/prevention implications of Grossarth-Maticek’s study are far reaching. It is an important endeavor to examine possible influencing factors in these results. While scientific fraud can never be excluded, in the absence of any incriminating evidence, this assertion is considered to be non-empirical. Amelang (1991) wonders whether unknown, favourable and non replicable conditions were present in Grossarth-Maticek’s samples or methodology which influenced the results.

The current research program represents an attempt to ascertain what some of those factors may have been. It is suggested here that Grossarth-Maticek’s probands learnt of their cancer or CHD proneness in the course of the interview which formed the basis of the data collected in their study. Focusing on this aspect of Grossarth-Maticek’s data collection methodology, the possibility of a large scale treatment effect emerges. The most psychologically vulnerable of his probands, having been stimulated by the interview process, may have ruminated and ‘catastrophized’ over their health prospects during the ensuing years, thereby making themselves physiologically more vulnerable to the feared conditions. The possibility of probands being adversely influenced by the interview is tested in the current study with subjects being measured for changes in cancer/CHD risk perception and anxiety levels as a result of participation in the ‘Grossarth-Maticek interview’ format.

In order to test this hypothesis, two studies were undertaken in which Grossarth-Maticek’s data collection method was replicated with 105 subjects. Subjects were assessed on a range of self report items prior to the ‘Grossarth-Maticek’ interview, and again post to this interview. They were assessed as to their beliefs about vulnerability to cancer and CHD; and their levels of anxiety in relation to contracting these conditions. Subject’s responses to learning of their ‘health prediction’ according to Grossarth-Maticek’s assessment tool were also measured via a heart rate monitor. Changes in subject’s self report measures and heart rate responses were noted and associations to the type of health prediction which they were given at the end of the interview was assessed. In the second study, the relative effects of family history, Neuroticism and time on disease risk perception and anxiety were studied via statistical analyses of self report measures.

The results of this study do not support the notion of the interview having any adverse influence. Problems with the methodology and sample selection may have influenced the outcome. It is concluded that for these reasons, the current study did not represent a thorough test of the current hypothesis. Recommendations for a superior test of this hypothesis are made.