ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (12): 2809-2824.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.02809

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Prosociality increases under stress: Evidence from different types of prosocial preferences

YANG Qun1(), ZHU Bing2(), YU Yiming1, ZHANG Jingmin3, XUE Mengmeng1   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, Jing Hengyi School of Education, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China
    2School of Marxism, Zhejiang Yuexiu University, Shaoxing 312000, China
    3Jiaxing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Jiaxing 314000, China
  • Received:2022-03-12 Online:2022-12-15 Published:2022-09-23
  • Contact: YANG Qun,ZHU Bing;


It is very common to experience stressful events for people in their daily lives. Especially during the ongoing global crisis of the COVID-19, most of us have to learn to live in a stressful environment. Stress can influence both our thoughts and our and behavior. Traditionally, people focused on negative effects of stress and ignored its positive effects. Whether in an acute or chronic states of stress, people may show prosocial preferences, such as helping others or maintaining social orders. Here, we used the theoretical framework proposed by Bockler et al. (2016) on human’s prosociality and systematically reviewed research evidence on the effects of stress on altruistically-motivated, norm-motivated, strategically- motivated, and self-reported prosocial preferences, to analyze stress-induced prosociality.
Altruistically-motivated prosocial preferences are regarded as a form of true altruism as people are motivated to benefit others even at a personal cost. Evidence shows that stress can increase altruistically-motivated prosocial behavior in both male and female subjects in economic paradigms such as dictator games, donation tasks, and social discounting tasks. Moreover, this phenomenon appears to emerge in childhood. Norm-motivated prosocial preferences reflect the prosociality of complying with and enforcing norms out of respect for social order. Previous research has consistently shown stress increases third-party punishment and reciprocal behavior. Yet, the effect of stress on second-party punishment remains controversial. Strategically-motivated prosocial preferences involve strategic giving and helping based on deliberate calculations of potential cost and benefit. By using trust game tasks, research has shown that the effect of stress on trust levels may depend on the way that the trust levels are measured, the initial amount staked to the investor and the trustee, and the amount of time between the stress and the decisions. In a single public-goods game, time pressure has been proved to enhance individuals’ propensity to cooperate. Self-reported prosocial preferences reflect prosocial attitudes and tendencies and are usually measured by everyday moral decision tasks or self-reported prosocial scales. Cross-cultural evidence has been obtained on the positive correlations between stress and an inclination for prosocial behavior among adults and adolescents.
Enhanced levels of prosocial preferences in stressful environments may be related to three psychological mechanisms. First, cooperative and altruistic behavior is an intuitive response to stressful events for many individuals. Stress can promote intuitive thinking, which in turn, can increase prosocial responses. Second, stress can promote empathy which is necessary for people to perceive accurately the intentions and emotions of others during social interactions. An enhanced level of empathy under stress serves to promote positive interpersonal interactions, and therefore produces more prosocial behaviors. Finally, people adopting prosocial behaviors in social interactions can effectively reduce negative emotions when confronted with stress; therefore, prosocial preferences under stress are likely to be a result of individuals engaging in emotional regulation.
It should be noted that stress does not necessarily enhance prosocial preferences. The relationship between stress and prosocial preferences is moderated by many factors, such as the type of stress, how it is induced, how subjects cope with it, age, gender, as well as individual differences in personality, in prosocial tendencies and in the ability to regulate emotion. Future research should focus on examining the conditions under which stress enhances prosocial preferences and the developmental trajectory of the prosocial preferences under stress. Such research would not only deepen our understanding of people’s psychological and behavioral responses to stressful environments, it could even foster methods to improve resilience during stress and help to guide people to respond to stressful events in a positive and prosocial way.

Key words: stress, prosociality, intuition, empathy, emotion regulation

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