Does stress make us more aggressive?
1: Imagine participating in a stressful group task where we compete with strangers in a mock job interview and tests of cognitive ability. The study maximizes two aspects of stress: the pressure to perform and the threat of being compared with others, Kelly McGonigal shares in The Upside of Stress.
Immediately afterward, we play the Trust Game. We are given $100. The other player, a total stranger, is given zero dollars. If we choose to not trust the stranger, that hundred dollars is split between the two of us. If we choose to trust the other player, the next decision is up to them. If they choose to be trustworthy, we each get $200. If they choose to be untrustworthy, they still get $200, but we get nothing.
How trusting would our “stressed out” group be after completing the mock job interviews and cognitive tests be compared to those who had not been stressed out?
The stressed out group would be more aggressive or selfish, right?
Not so fast.
In reality, the opposite is true. Those who had just gone through the stressful experience were 50% more likely to extend trust to a stranger and risk their full share of the winnings. They were also 50% more likely to be trustworthy, splitting the winnings with the stranger instead of keeping the money for themselves.
“This finding shocks a lot of people,” Kelly observes. Students in her class at Stanford “raise their hands to argue that the study’s findings are impossible.”
2: What’s going on here?
If we believe stress always produces a fight-or-flight response, this “pro-social” behavior does not make sense. The stressed out group should be operating from “a dog-eat-dog, competitive mentality, ready to take the money of any suckers who make the mistake of trusting them.”
But we don’t.
Why does the stressed out group demonstrate unusually high rates of trust and trustworthiness—around 75 percent?
The answer? Our stress response doesn’t just give us energy. In many circumstances, it also motivates us to connect with others. Scientists refer to this as the “tend-and-befriend” response.
“This side of stress is primarily driven by the hormone oxytocin,” Kelly explains. The primary function of oxytocin is to build and strengthen social bonds. “Elevated levels of oxytocin make [us] want to connect with others. It creates a craving for social contact, be it through touch, a text message, or a shared beer.”
Oxytocin also enhances our empathy and our intuition. When our oxytocin levels are high, we are more likely to trust and help people we care about. During stress, our “pituitary gland releases oxytocin to motivate social connection.” We show up as the best version of ourselves.
When something bad happens, and all we want to do is to talk with a friend or a loved one, that’s the stress response encouraging us to seek support. When we think about our kids, our pets, our family, or our friends, that’s the stress response encouraging us to “protect our tribe,” Kelly states.
3: Oxytocin has one more surprise benefit.
“This so-called love hormone is actually good for cardiovascular health,” Kelly declares. Our heart “has special receptors for oxytocin, which helps heart cells regenerate and repair from any micro-damage… When [our] stress response includes oxytocin, stress can literally strengthen [our] heart.
“This is quite different from the message we usually hear–that stress will give [us] a heart-attack!” Kelly observes. “There is such a thing as stress-induced heart attack, typically triggered by a massive adrenaline surge, but not every stress response damages [our] heart.”
Our “stress response has a built-in mechanism for resilience—one that motivates [us] to care for others while also strengthening [our] physical heart.”
Reflection: What interests or surprises me about Kelly’s insights on stress? What are my assumptions or beliefs about stress?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.