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How Cortisol Reactivity Influences Prosocial Decision-Making: The Moderating Role of Sex and Empathic Concern


How Cortisol Reactivity Influences Prosocial Decision-Making: The Moderating Role of Sex and Empathic Concern

Qionghan Zhang et al. Front Hum Neurosci.


The fight and flight theory and the tend-and-befriend theory suggest two opposite behavioral stress responses, and heterogeneous research results revealed the importance of taking sex into account. The experiment was designed to investigate the effect of stress-related cortisol reactivity on subsequent prosocial decision-making behaviors, and the moderating role of sex and empathic concern (EC) in the process. Sixty-one healthy students (34 women, 27 men) underwent the Trier Social Stress Test for Groups (TSST-G) or the control condition. Subsequently, participants completed three economic tasks-the dictator game, the ultimatum game, and the third-party compensation game. Statistical analyses revealed a significant main effect of cortisol reactivity on individuals' third-party compensation behaviorssex. A sex-specific effect of stress-related cortisol change on prosocial behaviors was found, with men behaving more generously in the dictator game as stress-related cortisol reactivity increased. Furthermore, the level of EC was found to moderate the association between stress-related cortisol change and prosocial behaviors, that individuals with a low level of EC reported more generosity and third-party compensation behaviors. Overall, the present study contributes to a better understanding of the behavioral stress responses, that individuals whose hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are highly activated in response to stress would exhibit tend-and-befriend responses, but only among men and those with a low level of EC.

Keywords: cortisol; decision-making; empathic concern; sex difference; stress; tend-and-befriend.


Figure 1
Figure 1
Study protocol, exact timing of each phases and the time of each phase relative to the start time of stress/control induction.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Participants’ (A) mean level of subjective stress, (B) mean level of salivary cortisol. Time 0 was the start of the Trier Social Stress Test for Groups (TSST-G; von Dawans et al., 2011). Error bars indicate standard errors of the mean.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Simple slope plots of (A) cortisol-delta × sex interactive effects on participants’ generosity in the dictator game and (B) condition × sex interaction effect on participants’ third-party compensation behaviors. Low = Mean − 1 SD; High = Mean + 1 SD.
Figure 4
Figure 4
Simple slope plots of cortisol-delta × EC interactive effects on participants’ (A) generosity in the dictator game, and (B) third-party compensation behaviors. EC, Empathic Concern. Low = Mean − 1 SD; High = Mean + 1 SD.

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