How stress influences our morality

As a study by von Dawans and her colleagues shows, acutely stressed people behave more pro-socially in microeconomic experiments where they (anonymously) have to interact with real people (Von Dawans, Fischbacher, Kirschbaum, Fehr, & Heinrichs, 2012). When participants received money and could either keep it for themselves or share it with another participant, stressed participants, on average, shared more. Participants under stress were also more willing to trust others more and acted themselves in a more trustworthy manner compared to non-stressed participants. As shown by another study by Vinkers and colleagues, this phenomenon cannot be transferred to altruistic behavior in general: stressed participants donated less money to the charity Unicef than their unstressed counterparts (Vinkers et al., 2013). Apparently, for stress to increase pro-social behavior it is necessary to be confronted with an actual other person (even if he is a stranger). A possible explanation might be that people under acute stress behave more pro-socially towards their peers in order to seek comfort and support (“tend and befriend” hypothesis; Taylor et al., 2000). This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Cooperation evolved in order to maximize the proliferation of our ancestors’ genes (Dawkins, 1976). For that reason, our innate morality is tweaked in such a way that we intuitively help actual people, from whom we can expect reciprocal help in return, but not abstract institutions like charities. Thus, the intuitive response can sometimes be pro-social (towards actual people) and sometimes not (towards abstract institutions).

If this is correct, stress is expected to enhance pro-social behavior only if the intuitive response to the current situation is to behave pro-socially. That’s why the same stimulus can lead to very different moral decisions depending on the intuitive response that is triggered. To identify which response this will be, it can be helpful to adopt an evolutionary perspective again and ask ourselves which reaction would have been evolutionarily adaptive in a specific situation. What follows is that, while stress usually increases deontological judgment, it can both increase or decrease utilitarian judgment: stress decreases utilitarian responses in situations when the utilitarian answer is counterintuitive and more controlled cost-benefit reasoning would be necessary to overcome first emotional intuitions, as we have seen in the trolley dilemma. But stress can also increase utilitarian responses in situations where the emotional intuition is in line with utilitarianism, for example when helping actual people one is interacting with (cf. Von Dawans et al., 2012). Note that moral intuitions might also be shaped via cultural or individual learning. But generally, many of these intuitions seem to stem from our evolutionary past (Greene, 2013).


The experimental findings presented in this article are based on unrealistic scenarios like the trolley dilemma that one probably—or at least hopefully—will not encounter in real life. Still, we face moral decisions every day, for instance when deciding whether to help a beggar, to cooperate with strangers or to donate to charity. These are moral decisions that, as we have seen, can be affected by stress. Presumably, stress experienced in real life situations, whether it is in cases of emergency, during a job interview, or in traffic, is of much higher intensity than the stress induced in laboratory settings. Considering the high prevalence of stress, the implications of the presented findings could be even greater than one might assume based on the experimental findings.

The conclusions drawn from these studies seem to raise an important question: if our moral judgments are so dependent on stress, which of our judgments should we rely on—the ones elicited by stress or the ones we come to after careful consideration? Most people would probably not regard a physiological reaction, such as stress, as a relevant normative factor that should have a qualified influence on our moral values. Instead, our reflective moral judgments seem to represent better what we really care about. This should make us suspicious of the normative validity of emotional intuitions in general. Thus, in order to identify our moral values, we should not blindly follow our gut reactions, but try to think more deliberately about what we care about.

From the editors

Lucius Caviola and Nadira Faulmüller do a great job showing the complex relationship between being stressed and being a good person. They provide the one answer that will be bound to deflate those action-oriented managers, coaches, or policy-makers out there: it depends. But it's a great answer, one we should acknowledge more often. In psychology, few effects, if any, are true in all cases. Most will depend on the situation or the individual.

But here's one of the very practical ways in which the "it depends" answer is very interesting - societal debates about moral decisions. If different people in different situations react differently - we can begin to understand why conflicts arise over social moral issues. Let me give you some examples of how different types of moral reasoning (outlined above as pathways in the dual process model) create societal debates and disagreement. One example are debates over public health spending. When treatment for a specific condition suddenly becomes very expensive, elaborate moral reasoning may suggest shifting resources away from the expensive treatment to cure other conditions and save more lives. An emotional reaction may, however, suggest that it is just wrong for people with a certain condition to not be supported at all. Another example that sadly comes up much too often in recent years is military intervention. An utilitarian argument may be that it's right to intervene in a conflict zone - although the intervention would cause loss of lives, more lives would be saved in the long-term. However, the 'moral gut-feeling' reaction, as the authors call it, may be that any war is just wrong.

As the authors mention, none of the arguments above is 'right' or 'wrong', this will depend on your ethical standpoint. What seems interesting is that stress, in its many forms, may affect these moral debates by making people more likely to accept one argument over the other.

What do you think about this? Can you think of other such debates over moral issues? Do you think that stress could be a useful variable to understand how moral debates play out in society?

Diana Onu
Associate Editor

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