Illustrated By Zhang Qingyun.
Stress is a tricky beast. No matter how organized or Zen or on-top-of-your-sh*t-amazing you might be, it's easy to get overwhelmed, whether there's a rational reason for it or not. And, if you haven't had at least one moment when that stress has made you say or do something you weren't exactly proud of...well, you might just not be human.
In this context, then, a new study from the University of Vienna has us more than a little intrigued. Researchers claim to have found evidence that stress impacts men and women in opposite ways, turning men into monsters while making women more understanding and just all-around better people.
In the experiments, male and female subjects were put into conditions modeled on the sorts of stress we experience every day (e.g., having to prepare a presentation with little lead time). When the subjects were good and stressed, they were tested on their abilities to relate to the people around them, from mimicking others' movements to assessing their emotions to taking on others' perspectives. The researchers found that the men scored worse on these tests while under stress, while the women generally did better. In practical terms, most of the men handled their stress by adopting an egocentric attitude, becoming less able to facilitate positive interactions with others. The female subjects, on the other hand, actually became considerably more "prosocial" when placed under stress — that is, they displayed greater aptitude for empathy and for relating to those around them.
The researchers have a few theories that might explain these findings. A previous study suggested that under stressful conditions, women display higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps facilitate bonding and positive social behavior, than men. Or, it may just be that women have been smart enough to figure out how to deal with stress in a positive way. As the study's author, Giorgia Silani, says, "Women may have internalized the experience that they receive more external support when they are able to interact better with others. This means that the more they need help — and are thus stressed — the more they apply social strategies."
But, there might be another explanation that speaks to our cultural attitudes and double standards. In our society, men are celebrated if they are seen as "strong leaders" — that is, if they can handle whatever is thrown at them, all by themselves, without complaining. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be praised for the work they do when they are part of a team, rather than when they are pushing to prove themselves as leaders. Many men might be afraid that if they ask for help, they may be seen as weak; women, in having to work harder to prove their worth in the workplace, might be more likely to understand the strategic importance of empathic relationships.