Acute stress has been found to elicit pro-social, anti-social or null responses in humans. The causes for these contradicting findings are currently poorly understood, and may rise from subjects' characteristics, such as sex or hormonal status, as well as stimuli-based traits, such as group membership. In the current study, 120 subjects performed either the Trier Social Stress Test or a control (non-stress inducing) condition, followed by ranking displayed faces according to several attributes (e.g., trustworthiness, attractiveness, dominance). Participants' eye gaze was also tracked while viewing facial stimuli. We examined how acute stress interacts with participants' sex, female participants' hormonal status (hormonal contraceptives, early-follicular phase and mid-luteal phase), and the observed faces' social group (ethnicity-based in-group or out-groups). In general, frequentist and Bayesian analyses showed that acute stress exposure did not affect social attributions or gaze behavior, nor did it interact with subjects' sex or the group membership of the observed faces. Interestingly, sub-group analyses showed that in females, acute stress interacted with hormonal status to yield heterogenous anti-social effects, such as post-stress reductions in perceived trustworthiness in the early-follicular phase, and lower perceived attractiveness in the mid-luteal phase. Given the small sample sizes for the sub-groups, these results should be viewed as preliminary until further replicated. Our results highlight the necessity for large-scale studies, particularly in females, to further refine existing theories regarding the nature and contexts by which acute stress elicits changes in social cognition and behavior.
- Eye gaze
- Social attributions