Commentary: Stress makes altruistic people become more selfish

KINGSTON, Ontario: If you’re feeling stressed right now, you’re not alone. One quarter of Canadians report experiencing high levels of stress on most days and almost half of Canadians say their stress levels have increased since the pandemic began.

And unfortunately, stress affects how we treat the people around us – sadly, it’s often not in a good way. Being stressed can actually make people more egotistical and greedier.

Stress affects us all on multiple levels. It affects our body, mind and behaviours. I was recently part of a team of researchers who examined how stress affects generosity and who is particularly vulnerable to changes in social behaviours when under pressure.

We wanted to understand how stress hormones, brain responses and our thoughts about others work together to explain how stress can make people selfish and why it doesn’t happen to everyone to the same degree.

ALTRUISTIC PEOPLE MORE VULNERABLE TO BECOMING SELFISH UNDER STRESS

In our study, we asked participants to donate to various charities before and after undergoing a social stress. To simulate the consequences of most altruistic acts in the real world, donations in this experiment had real consequences.

Participants were given 20 euros and could keep whatever money they decided not to donate. We found that while keeping the money and being selfish literally paid off, most participants were willing to support charitable causes.

However, after participants were exposed to a social stress, their biological stress responses as captured in increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol were negatively linked to their generosity. In other words, higher bodily stress responses diminished altruism.