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Males, females may deal with stress oppositely

March 19, 2014
Courtesy of the International School of Advanced Studies
and World Science staff

Stress, the en­e­my that haunts many of us daily, could be un­der­min­ing not only our health but al­so our rela­t­ion­ships with oth­ers, es­pe­cially if we’re men, a study indi­cates.

Men deal with stress by turn­ing in­ward—while wom­en do the op­po­site and be­come more so­cia­ble, the findings sug­gest.

Al­though the two re­ac­tions are op­posite, they each have their ad­van­tages and draw­backs, re­search­ers sug­gest. By be­com­ing more “e­go­cen­tric,” you free your­self of the bur­den of iden­ti­fy­ing with oth­ers—but al­so may lose ac­cess to their sup­port. By be­com­ing more ex­tro­verted, in­stead, you may gain a net­work of sup­port, but this re­quires some men­tal ef­fort.

These are the main find­ings of a study car­ried out with the col­la­bora­t­ion of Gior­gia Silani, from the In­terna­t­ional School for Ad­vanced Stud­ies of Tri­este in It­a­ly.

“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.”

The find­ings are pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­neu­ro­en­do­crin­ol­ogy.

Stress is a psycho-biological mech­an­ism that may have a pos­i­tive func­tion: it en­a­bles the in­di­vid­ual to re­cruit ad­di­tion­al re­sources when faced with a par­tic­u­larly de­mand­ing situa­t­ion, ac­cord­ing to Silani and col­leagues. Two ways of han­dling it are com­mon: try­ing to re­duce the in­ter­nal load of “ex­tra” re­sources be­ing used, or seek­ing ex­ter­nal sup­port. 

“Our start­ing hy­poth­e­sis was that stressed in­di­vid­uals tend to be­come more ego­cen­tric. Tak­ing a self-cen­tered per­spec­tive in fact re­duces the emo­tion­al/cog­nitive load. We there­fore ex­pected that in the ex­pe­ri­men­tal con­di­tions peo­ple would be less em­path­ic,” said Claus Lamm of the Uni­vers­ity of Vi­en­na, one of the au­thors of the pa­per.

The sur­prise, he added, was that this 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 un­der­went cer­tain tests: they had to im­i­tate cer­tain move­ments, or rec­og­nize their own or oth­er peo­ple’s emo­tions, or make a judg­ment tak­ing on anoth­er per­son’s per­spec­tive. Half of the study sam­ple were men, the oth­er half were wom­en.

“What we ob­served was that stress wors­ens the per­formance of men in all three types of tasks. The op­po­site is true for wom­en,” said Silani. “Ex­plana­t­ions might be sought at sev­er­al lev­els,” she added. “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 be­hav­iors and a pre­vi­ous study found that in con­di­tions of stress wom­en had high­er phys­i­o­logical lev­els of ox­y­to­cin than men.”


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Stress, the enemy that haunts many of us every day, could be undermining not only our health but also our relationships with others, especially if we’re men, a study suggests. Men deal with stress by turning inward—while women do the opposite and become more sociable, a study suggests. Although the two reactions are diametrically opposed, they each have their advantages and drawbacks, researchers suggest. By becoming more “egocentric,” you free yourself of the burden of identifying with others—but also may lose access to their support. By becoming more extroverted, instead, you may gain a network of support, but this requires some mental effort. These are the main findings of a study carried out with the collaboration of Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste in Italy. “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.” The findings are published in the research journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Stress is a psycho-biological mechanism that may have a positive function: it enables the individual to recruit additional resources when faced with a particularly demanding situation, according to Silani and colleagues. Two ways of handling it are common: trying to reduce the internal load of “extra” resources being used, or seeking external support. “Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric. Taking a self-centered perspective in fact reduces the emotional/cognitive load. We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic,” said Claus Lamm of the University of Vienna, one of the authors of the paper. The surprise, he added, was that this starting hypothesis was indeed 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 underwent certain tests: they had to imitate certain movements, or recognize their own or other people’s emotions, or make a judgment taking on another person’s perspective. Half of the study sample were men, the other half were women. “What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women,” said Silani. “Explanations might be sought at several levels,” she added. “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 behaviors and a previous study found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.” oppositely