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Stress Turns Men Self-Centered while Women become more Empathetic

Update Date: Mar 20, 2014 10:59 AM EDT
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People deal with stress differently. Some might turn to anger while others find ways of calming their body and mind. In a new study, researchers examined how stress affects men and women. They found that men who are highly stressed tend to become more self-centered and egotistical whereas stressed women become more empathetic and 'prosocial.'

For this study, the research team recruited 40 men and 40 women. Some of the volunteers participated in a stress test while others acted as the control group. The experimental group had to perform stressful activities such as delivering a speech and doing math problems all before an audience. The control group skipped this step and remained relaxed. All of the participants then had to undergo a series of tests to see how well they were able to separate their own feelings from what other people wanted, which helped the researchers determine who was empathetic and who was not.

"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," study author Dr. Giorgia Silani explained in a release. "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."

In one of the tests, researchers measured empathy by asking participants to move certain objects on a shelf. Participants who were able to move the objects based on what they thought other people wanted were considered to be empathetic.

The researchers discovered that under highly stressful situations, women were still able to be empathetic in comparison to women who were not stressed at all. For men, the individuals who were stressed performed worse on the empathy tests when compared to men who were relaxed and not stressed at all.

"What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women," Silani stated reported by the New York Daily News. "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."

The study, "Is stress affecting our ability to tune into others? Evidence for gender differences in the effects of stress on self-other distinction," was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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