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The Effects of Stress on Generosity

  Aug 26, 2014

By: Tobias Kalenscher

We often consider the well-being of others. However, we are usually not equally kind to everyone alike: we are much more prone to be generous towards individuals we feel close to than to those we only meet sporadically and may not care much about. For instance, parents are willing to incur large costs to help their children, but they would be much less willing to support complete strangers to the same degree. Thus, it seems that we structure our world according to social closeness and we accept costs to help socially close, but not necessarily socially distant people. In fact, many people accept own costs to help socially close people, while at the same time decreasing the well-being of socially distant people, sometimes to such an extent that severe harm is inflicted on those they do not care about. This phenomenon – high generosity towards socially close people and low generosity, or even harmful behaviour towards socially distant people – can be found throughout the world and has been demonstrated in the laboratory and the field in industrialized countries, such as the US, Europe and Australia, but also in many developing nations, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Honduras, Peru and many more.

A sharp distinction between in-group and out-group – that is, a clear delineation from whom to expect help and from whom not, and hence also to whom to provide aid and to whom not – is supposed to be particularly prominent in ethnically heterogeneous and fractionalized countries such as Kenya. As a consequence of ethnic fractionalization, the behaviour of members of an ethnic group is often characterized by high solidary behaviour toward other members of the same ethnic group, and very low solidary or even harmful behaviour toward members outside of the group. Take the Kenyan Maasai as an example: the Maasai are a people that have a distinctly defined societal structure that clearly delineates the levels of generosity expected to be shown towards others. For instance, members of an age set can expect strong help from, and are usually willing to provide help to, other members of the same age set. Solidarity is slightly lower with members of different age sets, and further decreases towards individuals from different group ranches or cultural backgrounds (e.g., Maasai in Tanzania) and even more towards members of other ethnic groups. In our research program, we asked what determines generosity towards socially close versus socially distant people. Obviously, the answer is not simple and the phenomenon is multi-faceted. Ethnic affiliation, as implied above, is certainly an important factor.

Tradition, genetic relatedness (own family), religion, converging or diverging beliefs and values as well as conflicts over scarce resources are without doubt also strong modulators of group affiliation and the level of generosity shown towards in- or out-group members. However, recent research suggests that there is a much more subtle and mundane factor influencing the level of generosity shown towards others that is quite unrelated to ethnic affiliation or tradition: stress. We all experience stress at some times and to variable degrees, but it is a well-established fact that poor people are often under much stronger and more chronic stress than wealthier individuals. Hence, stress is an important part of the psychology of poverty. In a set of experiments, we asked what the effect of stress is on generosity towards people we feel close to, and towards people that we care less about. We found that acute stress strongly amplified generosity towards socially close people: compared to non-stressed participants, stressed individuals shared much larger amounts of money with people they cared about a lot.

Interestingly, this stress-related increase in generosity was not restricted to related people, such as blood relatives, family, or members of the same ethnic group; stressed participants shared large amounts of money with anyone they cared about a lot, whether they were family members, friends, or another important, yet completely different person.

Interestingly, the amplification of generosity by stress could not be seen for more socially distant people. In other words, when our stressed participants did not care much about the person they were dealing with, they helped him or her as little as the non-stressed individuals did. Thus, we could show that stress as an essential feature of the psychology of poverty is an important modulator of altruistic, generous behaviour: under stress, we are much more generous towards people we feel close to than to people we do not care much about. Up to this point, it is unclear how this finding relates to reports of increased violence, thus to the opposite of generosity, under increased stress. For instance, domestic violence is supposed to increase in times of stress, as well as out-group aggression, i.e., the deliberate infliction of harm and damage to socially distant people. These are open questions, but evidence points towards a gender-specific differentiation on the effect of stress: women are believed to show more generosity and caring behaviour under times of stress, whereas men respond in either way when being stressed: sometimes, stress makes men also more helpful, supportive and generous, but at other times, stress seems to have the opposite effect, and renders them more aggressive, hostile and antagonistic.

It is currently unclear why men and women sometimes respond to stress with more compassion and altruism, and at other times with more aggression and hostility. However, because stress is always present in times of civil, ethnic or national conflicts, it is obvious that its effects on altruism, generosity, and aggression need to be well understood when devising policies aimed at tackling problems related to (mal)functional in-group solidarity or out-group aggression, such as street crime, civil disturbance, wars, ethnic conflicts, or religious fights. Stay tuned for recent developments on stress research!

Tobias Kalenscher is a Professor of Comparative Psychology, Department of Comparative Psychology (Institute for Experimental Psychology) in
Heinrich-Heine University Duesseldorf based in Düsseldorf, Germany.

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