I see something you don’t – this kid’s game just seems trivial. It assumes that the person whose role it is can imagine what is going on inside the other person. Experts talk about “mindset” or “theory of mind”. This ability is considered a prerequisite for social conscience and selfless, altruistic behavior towards others. Researchers led by Stefan Schulrich of the University of Hamburg have now discoveredPeople with a particularly strong theory of mind are less kind when under stress.
It was already known that the released cortisol affects altruistic behavior. In order to more accurately understand the connection, the team put some of the thirty-five participants under pressure for several minutes. Experts re-enacted an unpleasant job interview, which was also recorded. The remaining subjects completed a stress-free control condition.
Before and after, all participants were asked to decide how much of their earnings they wanted to donate to charitable organizations. During this resolution, they were placed in a brain MRI machine. It turns out that those with higher levels of cortisol were less generous; But only if they are particularly good at perceiving other people’s views and intentions. In such people, the activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in particular was altered under the influence of cortisol.
The brain region belongs to the theory of mind network. “Stress hormones can impair the ability to think mentally,” Schulrich says. Therefore, when our goodwill depends on this gift, stress can make us less altruistic. However, Schulrich cautions against generalizing the findings. In certain situations, stress can reinforce altruism, for example when one experiences the suffering of others firsthand. “Science is only slowly beginning to understand the circumstances in which stress has a positive or negative effect on social behavior,” he says.
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