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Recent behavioral investigations suggest that acute stress can increase prosocial behavior. Here, we investigated whether increased empathy represents a potential mechanism for this finding. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we assessed the effects of acute stress on neural responses related to automatic and regulatory components of empathy for pain as well as subsequent prosocial behavior. Stress increased activation in brain areas associated with the automatic sharing of others’ pain, such as the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, and the primary somatosensory cortex. In addition, we found increased prosocial behavior under stress. Furthermore, activation in the anterior midcingulate cortex mediated the effects of stress on prosocial behavior. However, stressed participants also displayed stronger and inappropriate other-related responses in situations which required them to take the perspective of another person, and to regulate their automatic affective responses. Thus, while acute stress may increase prosocial behavior by intensifying the sharing of others’ emotions, this comes at the cost of reduced cognitive appraisal abilities. Depending on the contextual constraints, stress may therefore affect empathy in ways that are either beneficial or detrimental.


School of Psychology

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Open Access Journal Article

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Open Access

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License