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Can Stress Make Us More Selfish?

A recent study shows that stress makes people less generous—but not all people.

Key points

  • Surveys reveal higher stress levels among Americans and Canadians during the pandemic.
  • More than 1 in 5 caregivers experience clinically concerning post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), compared to those who were not caregivers.
  • People are less likely to be generous after encountering a stressful experience.
  • People with high mentalization skills are particularly likely to become more selfish after experiencing a stressor, new research finds.

Over the past few years, there has been a near-universal increase in stress levels. One recent study documented Americans’ stress responses to the pandemic to provide a snapshot of the immediate impact of COVID-19 on Americans’ stress and coping abilities (1). More than 1,000 participants' contributed to the study. The results clearly showed that the pandemic is stressful.

The most commonly experienced stressors were reading/hearing about the severity and contagiousness of COVID-19 (96.6 percent), uncertainty about the length of quarantine (88.3 percent) and social distancing requirements, and changes to social (83.7 percent) and daily personal care routines (80.1 percent). Financial concerns were also reported. Many respondents were worried about job security (12 percent) and potential changes to the national or global economy (63 percent). According to the study, a young female who has caregiver responsibility is at the highest risk of COVID-19 stressor exposure and a greater degree of stressfulness.

According to the Canadian Social Survey, Canadians have also reported increased stress levels since the pandemic began (2). Like Americans, Canadian women and especially those staying at home with children found the pandemic extremely stressful.

Both surveys of Canadian and American populations reported that those taking care of children during the pandemic experienced the highest levels of stress. A national online survey focusing on this group collected responses from 801 participants in April 2020 and again 60 days later. About 22 percent reported caring for minors in their homes during the pandemic (3).

More than 1 of every 5 caregivers reported experiencing clinically concerning post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) as compared to those who were not caregivers. These symptoms included angry outbursts or recklessness, intrusive thoughts and distressing dreams, difficulties with memory and concentration, internalized shame and guilt, and avoidance of emotionally salient experiences, places, and people. In short: These parents seem to be burned out!

This pattern might give rise to insecure attachments which can leave these children at heightened risk for mood and anxiety disorders in adulthood. If this cycle is not interrupted, societies become at risk for transgenerational trauma.

What Stress Does to Our Behavior

Thus, it's clear that the pandemic increased stress for many people. Unfortunately, stress affects us on many levels. It affects our bodies, minds, and relationships. Notably, pandemic stress may have even changed our social cognition.

One important aspect of being human is altruistic behavior. Altruism is defined as doing something for another person at a cost to you. The question, then, becomes: Have heightened stress levels altered altruism, generosity, empathy, and compassion toward others?

A study that investigated how stress affects generosity may have alarming and consequential findings. Thirty-five participants were randomly assigned to stress or control conditions (4). In the stress condition, participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). They had to deliver a speech to explain why they are the ideal candidate for a job in front of cold evaluators while being videotaped. The task increased their blood pressure and cortisol levels, as would be expected.

Before engaging in this stressful task, baseline measures of participants’ mentalizing levels were collected. Mentalizing skills enable us to understand others’ inner mental states (their beliefs, needs, and thoughts). In this study, mentalization was positively correlated with generosity. In other words, those with higher mentalization abilities tended to be more generous compared to those with lower abilities.

Stress Levels Impact Altruistic Decisions and Actions

The participants completed a donation task while being scanned in an MRI at two different times: before the social stress task and afterward. The task entailed deciding whether or not to donate to a charity while in the MRI.

The participants were given 20 euros and could keep a percentage of whatever money they decided not to donate. The altruistic decision to donate would directly cost the person in the scanner as they would end up with less money for themselves.

It turned out that stress tended to make participants more selfish. They were, on average, less generous after being exposed to social stress (TSST). Physiological measures of stress like cortisol collected from saliva were also predictive of generosity. For example, increases in cortisol were associated with less giving, and the stronger the physiological stress reactions to the stress task, the more selfish they became.

The relationship between stress and altruism was not the same for everyone. Cortisol did not dimmish generosity for everyone. Stress reduced generosity only in participants with high mentalization capacity, but not in low mentalizers. In other words, the more you can put yourself in the other person’s mind, the more selfish you may become under the influence of stress.

The Brain, Altruism, and Stress

One brain area that is critical in altruistic decision-making is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The right DLPFC is involved in the controlled shift from a self-centered to an other-centered perspective (5).

This brain area may help explain how acute stress made people more selfish. The DLPFC plays a role in shifting from others to becoming self-centered under the influence of the stress hormone cortisol. At this point, it is unclear how exactly DLPFC mediated the association between stress and altruism.

Solutions Based on These Findings

The pandemic has been stressful for many people, and the dynamics of many teams and communities have been impacted by these stressful times. One consequence of this stress, this research suggests, is that some people will become more selfish.

Altruism is a key ingredient in building healthy communities; thus, raising awareness about the effects of pandemic stress could offer benefits to society as a whole. Further, stress management techniques can be taught at work, schools, and community venues. Perhaps "mentalizers" can be fished out for concentrated or immediate stress management training—and it may be wise to begin with those who experienced unusually high levels of stress during the pandemic, such as frontline and healthcare workers.


(1) Park, C. L., Russell, B. S., Fendrich, M., et al., (2020). Americans’ COVID‐19 Stress, Coping, and Adherence to CDC Guidelines. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35, 8:2296–2303.


(3) Russell, B. S., Hutchison, M., Park, C. L., Fendrich, M and Finkelstein-Fox, L. (2021). Short-term impacts of COVID-19 on family caregivers: Emotion regulation, coping, and mental health. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1-18.

(4) Schulreich, S., Tusche, A., Kanske, P. and Schwabe, L. (2022). Altruism under stress: cortisol negatively predicts charitable giving and neural value representations depending on mentalizing capacity. Journal of Neuroscience (10), 1870-21.

(5) Thirioux B, Mercier MR, Blanke O, Berthoz A (2014) The cognitive and neural time course of empathy and sympathy: An electrical neuroimaging study on self-other interaction. Neuroscience, 267:286–306.

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