The study was led by Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, and coordinated with psychologists and researchers at the University of Freiburg, and at the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Unit of the University of Vienna.
"Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric," said Claus Lamm, one of the authors of the new study and a researcher at the University of Vienna.
"Taking a self-centered perspective in fact reduces the emotional/cognitive load," Lamm said. "We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic."
The scientists were half correct. Stress diminished the ability to empathize, but only in men.
To test their hypothesis, moderate stress was induced in study participants via public speaking performances or mental arithmetic tasks. Afterward, the participants were made to imitate certain movements, recognize the emotions of others, or take on another person’s perspective.
“What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women” Silani explained.
To understand exactly why this happens, Silani says, more research will have to be done. Still, she says the findings are important, as social intelligence is vital to maintaining healthy relationships with our friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
"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," Silani said. "To be truly empathic and behave pro-socially it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this."
The study was published in the most recent edition of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.