Stress can make you more selfish

Summary: Higher levels of stress may reduce altruistic behavior, researchers report.

Source: The conversation

If you’re feeling stressed right now, you’re not alone. A quarter of Canadians say they experience a lot of stress on most days, and nearly half of Canadians say their stress levels have increased since the start of the pandemic.

And unfortunately, stress affects how we treat the people around us – unfortunately, it often isn’t in a good way. Being stressed can actually make people more selfish and greedy.

Stress affects all of us on multiple levels. It affects our body, mind and behavior. Recently, I was part of a team of researchers investigating how stress affects generosity and who is particularly vulnerable to changes in social behavior when under pressure.

We wanted to understand how stress hormones, brain responses and our thoughts about others work together to explain how stress can make people selfish and why it doesn’t happen to everyone to the same degree.

Stress affects altruism

In our study, we asked participants to donate to various charities before and after undergoing social stress. To simulate the real world effects of most altruistic acts, donations in this experiment had real effects.

Participants received 20 euros and were allowed to keep the money they decided not to donate. We found that most participants, while keeping the money and being selfish, literally paid off, willing to support charities.

After participants were exposed to social stress, their biological stress responses — as captured in elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol — were negatively linked to their generosity.

In other words, higher physical stress responses reduced altruism.

But not everyone experienced stress in the same way. The participants’ sensitivity to the stress hormone cortisol was related to their ability to understand the inner mental states of others (such as their needs, beliefs, goals, or points of view). This ability is sometimes referred to as mentalizing or theory of mind and is positively related to altruistic behavior.

Participants with high mentalizing abilities were those most vulnerable to becoming more selfish under stress.

Credit: TED-Ed

The brain after stress

We measured participants’ brain activity during charitable giving, both before and after stress, using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

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We found that there is an area in the brain that mediates a cortisol-related shift of altruism: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This area has long been known to play a key role in altruistic decision-making and cognitive control.

Targeted interventions that lower stress levels can improve altruism among people. Image is in the public domain

The stress hormone cortisol altered activation patterns in this brain region and mediated the negative effects of stress on altruistic behavior. It formed the missing link between physical stress responses and perceived changes in our social behavior. Specifically, it explained exactly how the brain reacts to stress and contributes to the changed willingness to help under pressure.

The findings of our study are important because they reveal several things:

  1. They help understand the connection between the body’s stress responses and the change in our willingness to help others. Societies depend on people’s willingness to share, collaborate and help. Altruism is a building block of functioning societies – high levels of stress reported by many Canadians are a potential risk factor. It is vital to understand how stress can affect our prosocial behavior towards other people and organizations. Understanding this can ultimately help develop new interventions that target the elements altered by stress experiences.
  2. Not all people are the same: not everyone reacts the same under stress. It is useful to identify the characteristics that explain susceptibility to stress effects, as they can help protect vulnerable people by informing us who they are.
  3. These findings point to strategies for buffering against the potentially harmful ways we treat others as a result of stress responses. In particular, the results suggest that targeted interventions that lower stress levels may improve altruism among Canadians (particularly those who are highly mentalizing).

More research is needed to prove this claim, but it presents an exciting opportunity for anyone interested in creating more prosocial communities and environments. While this may not be the first thing that comes to mind, new and effective ways to reduce stress in vulnerable members of our communities can be critical to ensuring a supportive social environment.

About this research news on stress and altruism

Writer: anita ink
Source: The conversation
Contact: Anita Tusche – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

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