We all feel stressed but a new paper finds that how we deal with it is different - even in as broad a category as men and women. Stressed women apparently become more "prosocial".
Stress is a psycho-biological mechanism that obviously can have a positive function: it enables individuals 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.
The paper finds that men choose the former while women choose the latter.
"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" explains Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste. "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".
"Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric. Taking a self-centred perspective in fact reduces the emotional/cognitive load. We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic" explains Claus Lamm, from the University of Vienna and one of the authors of the paper.
They said they were surprised that the hypothesis was true only 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 recognise their own or other people's emotions (emotional condition), or make a judgement 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" explains Silani.
Why this happens is not yet clear. "Explanations might be sought at several levels", concludes Silani. "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. 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".