New research suggests stress reduces the ability of men to feel empathy but increases it in women.
Stress can be detrimental to one's personal health as well as their relationships, but a new study suggests it could have an either positive or negative effect on their ability to feel empathy as well, an International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA). This effect is based on the individual's gender.
A research team found that in times of stress women tend to be "prosocial," which is the opposite of how men usually reacted.
"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" Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste said in the news release. "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 labeled as a "psycho-biological mechanism" and can have positive effects in certain circumstances. It can force stressed-out individuals to search for additional resources when faced with a tough situation. The individual can choose to deal with the stress by reducing the "internal load of extra resources" being used at the time or they can reach for outside support.
"Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric. Taking a self-[centered] perspective in fact reduces the emotional [or] cognitive load. We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic" Claus Lamm, from the University of Vienna and one of the authors of the paper, said in the news release.
The researchers' first hypothesis proved to be only true for males. The team put the participants in lab-created situations of stress that were in three groups: motor conditions, in which they had to imitate a movement; emotional conditions, in which they had to recognize, and emotion; or cognitive conditions, in which they had to make some sort of judgment.
"What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women," Silani said.
"Explanations might be sought at several levels," Silani said. "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.
The disparity could be linked to the hormone oxytocin, which has proved to be more prevalent in women during times of stress.