Stress Increases Women’s Performance and Empathic Attunement, but not Men’s

Livia Tomova

Livia Tomova

Task performance, social interaction skills, and empathic attunement increase for women under stress, but not for men.
Women seek social support (“become prosocial”), but men turn toward themselves and away from others when they experience stress, according to University of Vienna’s Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm with Bernadette von Dawans and Markus Heinrichs of University of Freiburg, and Giorgia Silani, International School for Advanced Studies, SISSA-ISAS, Trieste

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

Tomova’s team evaluated the impact of stress on 20 women and 20 men, elicited by Clemens Kirschbaum, Karl-Martin Pirke, and Dirk Hellhammer’s (Universität) Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants delivered a speech and performed mental arithmetic in front of an audience.

Bernadette von Dawans

Bernadette von Dawans

Tomova and team measured “self-other distinctions” during three types of tasks:

  • Imitated movements  (perceptual-motor task): “Move objects on a shelf according to the instructions of a director,” requiring participants to “disentangle their own visual perspective” from that of the director,
  • Identifying  one’s  own  emotions or  other  people’s  emotions  (emotional  task),  or
  • Making a judgment from another person’s perspective (cognitive task).
Markus Heinrichs

Markus Heinrichs

As a comparison, 20 men and 20 women completed non-stressful activities like “easy counting.”

Women and men showed similar physiological reactions to stress, but stress decreased men’s performance in all tasks.
In contrast, women’s performance on all tasks improved under stress

Giorgia Silani

Giorgia Silani

Specifically, women who experienced stress demonstrated more accurate understanding of others’ perspective than non-stressed women and men.
However, men under stress showed less ability to accurately detect others’ probable thoughts and feelings.

Walter Cannon

Walter Cannon

Studies of stress were pioneered by Harvard’s Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response in1914, and popularized by Hans Selye of Université de Montréal.  

Hans Selye

Hans Selye

People can cope with stress by:

  • Seeking social support or
  • Reducing “internal cognitive load” that requires additional coping efforts.

One way to reduce “internal cognitive load” is to disconnect from others’ perspective and emotional experience through reducing empathy.
Besides this process of “mentalizing,” empathy also requires people to distinguish their representations of themselves from representations of others.

Clemens Kirschbaum

Clemens Kirschbaum

Women under stress “flexibly disambiguate” mental representations of themselves from others and increase “self-other distinction,” found Tomova’s research group.
This cognitive style enables women to more accurately perceive others’ perspective, enabling more empathic interaction with others in a “tend-and-befriend” approach.

In contrast, men under stress typically turn inward with “increased egocentricity” to conserve mental and emotional resources for “flight-or-flight” responses, leading to less adaptive social interactions.

Dirk Hellhammer

Dirk Hellhammer

These differences may be rooted in gender-specific learning experiences and biological differences including higher levels of oxytocin (a hormone that mediates social behaviors) among women who experienced stress, noted Tomova’s research team.
As a result, women may seek more frequently seek social support, may interact with others more empathically, and may be rewarded with external help in a reinforcing cycle.

Nikolas Rose

Nikolas Rose

Social support can improve performance and reduce stress, probably because the brain is “wired for sociality,” according to King’s College London’s Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached of Harvard.

Gender differences in performance under stress are associated with different styles of “sociality” and empathic insight.

-*How do you maintain task performance and “Emotional Intelligence” of empathy when experiencing stress?

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