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Stress Makes Men More Social and Generous


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

It has been a long-held belief that, when it comes to stress, men become more aggressive and even ready to fight. However, German psychologists and neuroscientists have refuted this stereotype claiming that men under stress are actually more social, more likely to trust others and to share their resources.

How men and women cope with stress has been a widely researched topic for scientists over the years, with previous studies suggesting that when under stress, men take a "fight-or-flight" approach, behaving more aggressively, while women rely on their social ties for comfort and support. The new study, which analyzed how some men respond socially to stressful situations, found that stressed men are also tenders-and-befrienders.

For their research, Professor Markus Heinrichs and Dr. Bernadette von Dawans from the University of Freiburg, recruited 67 students (all male) from the University of Zurich and split them into two different groups. In order to test their responses in stressful situations, the experts put half of the students under stress by making them speak publicly and by having to complete a hard mental-math task. The other group was asked to perform the same activities in a laid-back way, completing a stress-free group read-along and an easy math test.

After being stressed or unstressed to a certain extent, the students had to play a series of trust and sharing games (with real money being at stake) with volunteers from another group. In the games the participants had to make choices about how much they were willing to trust a partner, whether they needed to earn a partner's trust or betray them, and whether to share or hoard money. In addition, the men had to play a simple roll-of-the-dice gambling game, individually, so the scientists could measure how much risk they were willing to take. During the whole period of the experiment, while observing the participants' behavior during the games, the investigators monitored their heart rate as well as the concentration of the stress hormone, called cortisol, in their saliva.

The results revealed that when men were put under stress, their kind and gentle behavior actually increased. Researchers found that the higher were the men's heart rates and levels of cortisol in their saliva, the more trusting, friendlier, trustworthy and generous behavior they demonstrated during the games. The study found that there was no difference in anti-social or risk-taking behavior between the men who were under stress and those who were relaxed. For instance, in the gambling game stressed men were not any more likely to take big risks when compared to unstressed participants. This could mean that response to stress is specific to social behavior.

Professor Heinrichs said that from earlier research conducted in their lab, the scientists already knew that positive social contact with a trusted person before a stressful situation decreases the stress response. Apparently, the scientist added, this coping strategy is so strong that people can also alter their stress responses during or right after the stress through positive social behavior. Due to the fact that the study involved only male participants, researchers could not directly compare male and female stress coping mechanisms. Nevertheless, the findings demonstrate that being social in stressful situations is not exclusive to women, the authors wrote.

The results of the study are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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