In times of stress, men become self-centered, women focus on others

BY Robert Pursell  March 18, 2014 at 5:33 PM EDT

A new study reveals how men and women react differently to stress. The paper, to be published in the May issue of the journal Psychoneuroendicrinology, claims that in times of stress male subjects become more egocentric and less able to properly respond to social situations. Women react in exactly the opposite fashion, becoming more “prosocial,” and able to relate to others in times of stress.

The function of stress may have a positive function because it enables individuals to recruit additional resources when taxed. And there are two ways to cope: either by becoming self-centered, or by seeking external support. “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” said Claus Lamm, from the University of Vienna and one of the authors of the study.

The study’s lead author, Giorgia Silani of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, said that the findings help to explain stress at the psychosocial level.

“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 Silani. “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.”

On a physiological level, the gender difference might be accounted for by the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is a hormone connected with social behaviors — it’s been called the “love hormone” and the “trust hormone” — and, according to Silani, a previous study found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.

Silani said that additional research will be required to fully gauge the effects of stress on both sexes in social constructs.