Many of us often associate women with being more empathetic during stressful situations. We tend to believe that women seek social support or are able to put oneself in another’s shoes during that state. On the other hand, we presume that men become more self-obsessed. That they often shut out society and focus on themselves. In a 2014 article, Jacobs discusses a study that was done to test this theory. This consisted of 40 men and 40 women. Half of whom had to undergo some sort of stress test, and the other half did not do stressful activities. Then they all had to participate in an activity where they had to place objects on a shelf through the director’s vision which would allow them to see from other’s point of view. The results were that the stressed women were better able to understand the perspective of others rather than the men who could not envision a way other than their own. This may entail that women do in fact become more empathetic and that men turn the other way. However, more recent studies were done to prove that this may not be completely true. A study was done in 2015 on men which aimed to break this belief by proving that men do become more empathetic during times of stress. Another study was done in 2016 that wanted to further compare how men and women differ at those times.
Wolf et al., discuss in their article, “Enhanced emotional empathy after psychosocial stress in young healthy,” that in previous articles women are known to tend and befriend. They explain how stress cannot be put into one category because it is so broad rather it should be split into cognitive and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is when one is able to interpret or read the emotions of another individual. Emotional empathy is how one reacts to another’s emotions. So, in this study, they wanted to test how psychosocial stress would impact these two types of empathy. The researchers found that emotional empathy was increased after stress and that cognitive empathy was not affected due to stress. An issue with this study was that they used Salivette sampling devices for the saliva. This could impact the study because they were not able to see the proper flow of the saliva, which was used to measure the cortisol that is released during stress.
In the article, “Sex-dependent effects of stress on brain correlates to empathy for pain,” Gonzalez-Liencres, Breidenstein, Wolf, and Brüne understand that empathy is crucial for an individual to know how to properly socialize. Once you learn about an individual’s story you tend to relate to them more. So, why is it that we empathize with some people more than others? Could it be because we relate to some people more than others, or does it depend on how much stress we are under at the time? Some studies found that things like age, sex, occupation, and ethnicity could lead us to become more or less empathetic. All these factors are determined by our genetics or what we have done. These are relatively large factors. So, how can something like acute social stress change the way we perceive and empathize with others. Recent studies have been done to test this theory. “Social stress can be caused by several reasons, such as social evaluative threat and uncontrollability, fearing the loss of a loved one or having fear of acting in public (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004, Miczek, 2010)” (Gonzalez-Liencres, Breidenstein, Wolf, & Brüne, 2016, p. 48). These types of things happen quite often and change who we are as individuals. So, we can only assume that the way we empathize with other must come from something else. Men and women both experience these situations yet the way they respond is completely different.
Furthermore, the authors found that under social stress men become less aware of those around them while women become more aware. “This is in agreement with the “tend and befriend” hypothesis put forward by Taylor and colleagues, who proposed that whereas men engage in “fight or flight” behavior in response to stress, women’s behavioral reaction consists in creating and caring for social networks (Taylor et al., 2000)” (Gonzalez-Liencres, Breidenstein, Wolf, & Brüne, 2016, p. 48). All previous studies that have been done point to the fact that men and women differ in empathy when it comes to stress. Still, they are not completely sure of exactly how. So, the researchers wanted to further work with this idea wanted to know if social stress affects empathy for pain in both men and women. Gonzalez-Liencres, Breidenstein, Wolf, and Brüne, found that after the participants went through the stress test they may have an increased empathy reaction later on. Also, when they showed the pictures of the neutral and painful situations they found that the greater the difference between the neutral and painful picture that the men had higher cortisol responses. As much as the researchers tried to control all possible variables there were certain limitations. They were only able to test people between ages 18 and 35, so this would not apply for anyone who is younger or older. Also, they mainly focused on the difference of psychosocial stress between men and women as there are many different types of stress so it would only apply to this type. They then excluded certain people who did not produce cortisol in response to the stress which does not allow us to see all different types of results. Finally, they did not exclude women who were in their follicular or luteal phases.
Moreover, this study was very beneficial because it shows how stress can actually help us. Empathy is something many of us lack in today’s society and knowing that the stress of life can bring us good is very comforting. Most of the time when an individual is upset it could go in two completely different ways. One could block out the world around them and become numb towards other human beings or they may be grieving but try in any way to give back to the community in order to fill that void. So being empathetic towards others in stressful times would benefit them. Also, having these two articles people would now understand that both men and women become more empathetic during times of stress.
To conclude, through these articles we were able to understand if stress does in fact affect an individual’s empathy. With the findings we can say that it does in certain ways. One said that stress does impact empathy but in a later reaction, after the stress is over. In the other, they found that stress increases emotional empathy while it does not change cognitive empathy. Another main issue was due to previous knowledge that has told us that women going through a stressful situation tend to become empathetic while men stay to themselves. Both articles prove that men have almost the same amount of empathy after stress. With this knowledge we can further explore the reasons that this happens as it is not fully clear. But, we can understand now that due to these stressful situations it allows us to advance as a nation because we would feel and want for others what we want for ourselves.