Researchers determined stressed males tend to become more self-centered and less able to distinguish their own emotions and intentions from those of other people. For women, the opposite is true as they become more “prosocial.”
The collaborative study was led by Dr. Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste and included contributions from the University of Vienna and the University of Freiburg.
The study is published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
“There’s a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective — and therefore be empathic — and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically,” said Silani.
“To be truly empathic and behave prosocially, it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this.”
Stress is a psychobiological mechanism that may have a positive function. It enables the individual to recruit additional resources when faced with a particularly demanding situation.
The individual can cope with stress in one of two ways: by trying to reduce the internal load of “extra” resources being used, or, more simply, by seeking external support.
“Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric,” said Claus Lamm, Ph.D., one of the authors of the paper.
“Taking a self-centered perspective in fact reduces the emotional/cognitive load. We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic.”
Researchers were surprised that their initial hypothesis was only true for males.
In the experiments, conditions of moderate stress were created in the laboratory (for example, the subjects had to perform public speaking or mental arithmetic tasks, etc.).
The participants then had to imitate certain movements (motor condition), or recognize their own or other people’s emotions (emotional condition), or make a judgment taking on another person’s perspective (cognitive condition).
Half of the study sample were men, the other half were women.
“What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women,” said Silani.
Why this happens is not yet clear.
“At a psychosocial level, women may have internalized the experience that they receive more external support when they are able to interact better with others. This means that the more they need help — and are thus stressed — the more they apply social strategies,” said Silani.
“At a physiological level, the gender difference might be accounted for by the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is a hormone connected with social behaviors and a previous study found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.”