Ever feel that stress makes you more cranky, hot-headed or irritable? For men in particular, we think of stress as generating testosterone-fueled aggression – thus instances of road rage, or the need to “blow off steam” after work with a trip to the gym or a bar. On the other hand, in circumstances of extreme stress such as during natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, we hear moving accounts of people going out of their way to help others. Hurricane Sandy has led to a flourish of supportive tweets and Facebook messages directed to people on the East Coast. The tsunami in Asia a couple of years ago led to a huge influx of financial support to help afflicted areas. Many who lived in New York City during 9/11 remember that, for a few days afterward, the boundaries and class divisions between people dissolved: people greeted each other on the street and were more considerate, sensitive to each other, and gentle than normal.
The classic view is that, under stress, men respond with "fight or flight,” i.e. they become aggressive or leave the scene, whereas women are more prone to “tend and befriend,” as has been shown in research by Shelley Taylor. A new study by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans at the University of Freiburg, Germany, however, suggests that acute stress may actually lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior, even in men. This more positive and social response could help explain the human connection that happens during times of crises, a connection that may be responsible, at least in part, for our collective survival as a species.
In Heinrichs’ and Dawans’ study, male participants were assigned to either an experimental group, with a stress procedure (a public speaking exercise followed by a complicated mental arithmetics), or a control group with no stress. They all were then asked to play an economics game involving potential financial gain based on the choices they make. In this game, they could choose to cooperate with others and trust them or not. The researchers found that, rather than becoming more aggressive after stress, men in the stress group actually became more trusting of others, displayed more trustworthy behavior themselves, and were more likely to cooperate and share profits. The researchers also found that these results were not due to weakened judgment in the stress group: the stress group did not differ from the control groups in their ability to make decisions or their willingness to sanction another participant who behaved unfairly.
One reason why stress may lead to cooperative behavior is our profound need for social connection. Human beings are fundamentally social animals and it is the protective nature of our social relationships that has allowed our species to thrive. Decades of research shows that social connection is a fundamental human need linked to both psychological and and physical health including a stronger immune system, faster recovery from disease and even longevity.
Social connection may be particularly important under stress because stress naturally leads to a sense of vulnerability and loss of control. A study by Benjamin Converse and colleagues at the University of Virginia found that feeling out of control (through a reminder of one’s mortality) leads to greater generosity and helpfulness while research at Stanford University by Aneeta Rattan and Krishna Savani showed that the opposite is true when we are primed with feelings of self-determination and control. Think back to a time when you felt out of control, for example during a romantic break-up, when you had an empty bank account, or lost a job. Chances are your feeling of vulnerability and feelings of lack of control may have made you seek the comfort of others in some way. Brene Brown, Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and expert in the field of social connection, explains that vulnerability is a core ingredient of social bonding.