Stress Increases Empathic Abilities in Women and Undermines them in Men


(19/03-2014) – A very simple problem could be undermining not only our health, but also our relationship with other people: Stress. 

A recent study carried out with the collaboration of Giorgia Silani from the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste suggests that 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, it is the opposite. Stressed women become more “prosocial”, so to speak. Silani explains: “There’s a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective — and therefore, be empathetic — and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically.

To be truly empathetic and behave pro socially it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an significant role in this.” 

Stress is a mechanism with a positive function: it enables the individual to recruit additional resources when faced with a particularly demanding situation. The individual can cope with stress by trying to reduce the internal load of extra resources being used or by seeking external support.

Claus Lamm, from the University of Vienna, and one of the authors of the paper explains: “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.”

The researchers were surprised that their starting hypothesis was true… but 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 recognize 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 samples were men, the other half were women.

It was then observed that stress worsened the performance of men in all three types of tasks, and the opposite was true for women.

It is not yet clear, why this is happening.

“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 behavior and a previous study found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.” (Cyril Malka)

Cyril Malka

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