Acute stress reduces effortful prosocial behaviour

Paul AG Forbes (Corresponding author), Gökhan Aydogan, Julia Braunstein, Boryana Todorova, Isabella Anderson-Wagner, Patricia L Lockwood, Matthew AJ Apps, Christian C Ruff, Claus Lamm (Corresponding author)

Publications: Contribution to journalArticlePeer Reviewed


Acute stress can change our cognition and emotions, but what specific consequences this has for human prosocial behaviour is unclear. Previous studies have mainly investigated prosociality with financial transfers in economic games and produced conflicting results. Yet a core feature of many types of prosocial behaviour is that they are effortful. We therefore examined how acute stress changes our willingness to exert effort that benefits others. Healthy male participants – half of whom were put under acute stress – made decisions whether to exert physical effort to gain money for themselves or another person. With this design, we could independently assess the effects of acute stress on prosocial, compared to self-benefitting, effortful behaviour. Compared to controls (n = 45), participants in the stress group (n = 46) chose to exert effort more often for self- than for other-benefitting rewards at a low level of effort. Additionally, the adverse effects of stress on prosocial effort were particularly pronounced in more selfish participants. Neuroimaging combined with computational modelling revealed a putative neural mechanism underlying these effects: more stressed participants showed increased activation to subjective value in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula when they themselves could benefit from their exerted effort relative to when someone else could. By using an effort-based task that better approximates real-life prosocial behaviour and incorporating trait differences in prosocial tendencies, our study provides important insights into how acute stress affects prosociality and its associated neural mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberRP87271
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jan 2024

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 501014 Neuropsychology


  • acute stress
  • effort
  • human
  • neuroimaging
  • neuroscience
  • prosocial behaviour
  • social preferences

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