Stress May Bring Out Empathy in Women, Selfishness in Men
When researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, set out to study how stress impacts empathy and egocentricity, they originally theorized that stress would mostly make people more self-centered. They were surprised to learn, however, that their hypothesis was only true for men.
What the researchers found was that stress does tend to make men more selfish and less able to distinguish their own intentions and feelings from the intentions and emotions of others. But in women, stress had the opposite effect, and instead made them more empathetic.
“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 study leader Dr. Giorgia Silani.
For the study, 40 men and 40 women underwent stress tests, which consisted of giving a speech and solving math problems in front of an audience. Participants then completed more tests designed to measure their ability to distinguish between self and other, such as moving objects on a shelf based on another person’s directives. Those who completed the task correctly were determined to have had a degree of empathy and an understanding of the other person’s perspective.
Women who had first done the stress tests performed the task better than the control group of women who hadn’t undergone any previous tests, but the stressed men did worse than their control group in following the directions of another person.
Stress, Empathy and “Pro-social” Behavior
One of the biological purposes of stress is to urge us to seek additional resources when we face tough situations. This can be done by becoming less responsive to others, thereby conserving mental resources and energy, or by opening up and seeking support from others in order to cope. It was because of the potential to conserve mental resources that the researchers initially expected people to become more self-centered in times of stress.
“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,” Silani said.
She speculates that women may have come to understand that they get more support when they’re able to interact well with others, and have adapted accordingly.
So perhaps men should consider taking a cue from the ladies in this area. Though it’s tempting to withdraw and become a little anti-social when you’re stressed or anxious, remember that empathy and pro-social behavior are far more likely to get you where you want to be in the long run. It’s especially important for those of us with anxiety to practice cultivating empathy and connections with others – and even more important to do so in situations where these characteristics come anything but naturally.
The study was published in in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.