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Altruism under Stress: Cortisol Negatively Predicts Charitable Giving and Neural Value Representations Depending on Mentalizing Capacity

Schulreich, Stefan and Tusche, Anita and Kanske, Philipp and Schwabe, Lars (2022) Altruism under Stress: Cortisol Negatively Predicts Charitable Giving and Neural Value Representations Depending on Mentalizing Capacity. Journal of Neuroscience, 42 (16). pp. 3445-3460. ISSN 0270-6474. PMCID PMC9034777. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.1870-21.2022.

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Altruism, defined as costly other-regarding behavior, varies considerably across people and contexts. One prominent context in which people frequently must decide on how to socially act is under stress. How does stress affect altruistic decision-making and through which neurocognitive mechanisms? To address these questions, we assessed neural activity associated with charitable giving under stress. Human participants (males and females) completed a charitable donation task before and after they underwent either a psychosocial stressor or a control manipulation, while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging. As the ability to infer other people's mental states (i.e., mentalizing) predicts prosocial giving and may be susceptible to stress, we examined whether stress effects on altruism depend on participants' general capacity to mentalize, as assessed in an independent task. Although our stress manipulation per se had no influence on charitable giving, increases in the stress hormone cortisol were associated with reductions in donations in participants with high mentalizing capacity, but not in low mentalizers. Multivariate neural response patterns in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) were less predictive of postmanipulation donations in high mentalizers with increased cortisol, indicating decreased value coding, and this effect mediated the (moderated) association between cortisol increases and reduced donations. Our findings provide novel insights into the modulation of altruistic decision-making by suggesting an impact of the stress hormone cortisol on mentalizing-related neurocognitive processes, which in turn results in decreased altruism. The DLPFC appears to play a key role in mediating this cortisol-related shift in altruism.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription
Schulreich, Stefan0000-0001-9708-1545
Tusche, Anita0000-0003-4180-8447
Kanske, Philipp0000-0003-2027-8782
Schwabe, Lars0000-0003-4429-4373
Additional Information:© 2022 the authors. Received Sep. 15, 2021; revised Feb. 9, 2022; accepted Feb. 9, 2022. This work was supported by Universität Hamburg (S.S.) and NIMH Conte Center 2P50 MH094258 (A.T.). We thank Jehona Muslija and Gudrun Grätschus for assistance during data collection, and Carlo Hiller for programming the task. Author contributions: S.S., A.T., P.K., and L.S. designed research; S.S. performed research; S.S. analyzed data; S.S., A.T., P.K., and L.S. wrote the paper. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Universität HamburgUNSPECIFIED
NIH2P50 MH094258
Subject Keywords:altruism; cortisol; decision-making; fMRI; social cognition; stress
Issue or Number:16
PubMed Central ID:PMC9034777
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20220315-626434000
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Official Citation:Altruism under Stress: Cortisol Negatively Predicts Charitable Giving and Neural Value Representations Depending on Mentalizing Capacity Stefan Schulreich, Anita Tusche, Philipp Kanske, Lars Schwabe Journal of Neuroscience 20 April 2022, 42 (16) 3445-3460; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1870-21.2022
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:113926
Deposited By: George Porter
Deposited On:16 Mar 2022 15:54
Last Modified:13 Jun 2022 23:26

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