The Surprising Benefit Of Stress: Why Turmoil Gives You Empathy And Compassion

Stress may make you more sympathetic, according to a new study. Researchers discovered that psychological stress actually increases empathy and prosocial, or altruistic, behavior.

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In the study, 80 male participants solved difficult tasks (while receiving some negative feedback) in an allotted amount of time. During the task, each person was asked to empathize with others and cortisol levels were measured to calculate stress levels. To determine empathy, participants viewed images of painful medical procedures and were asked to imagine how the patient felt. For some of the photos, researchers told subjects that the patient had received anesthesia, which scientists believe helped determine whether the participants were reacting to the image or patient.

hands-699486_1920 Stress is usually in the news for its negative impact, but new study suggests it could be helpful. Pixabay

They found that people showed more empathy to the painful images when participants were stressed. Even when subjects were notified that the procedures weren’t painful due to anesthesia, they still showed empathy for the patients.

The team also created a game for participants to measure prosocial behavior. Participants were asked to distribute money however they wanted between themselves and a stranger. The more empathetic individuals were, the more money they shared with others.

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“Based on their neural responses, stressed participants had a stronger emotional reaction to the pictures. However, this implies that they also ignored complex information about the actual situation the shown person was in,” study co-author Claus Lamm says in a statement. “Our results thus support the hypothesis that humans show more empathy and are more prone to helping others when they are under stress, but that their perspective taking skills might deteriorate.”

Empathy has become an increasingly important characteristic valued in the workplace. As Harvard Business Review reports, being empathetic, whether to customers, employees, or the public, is good business sense, and many companies attempt to harness the attribute through training programs. This is an especially timely topic amid reports of United Airlines' controversy surrounding treatment of passsengers. This new study could be used to help leaders further develop their programs to create friendly, people-centered companies.

See Also:

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