Stress is a Product of and Cause of Inequality

Stress is both a cause of and product of inequality, according to a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Stress can provide more opportunities for social and economic inequality, according to findings published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland observed competitive self confidence in 229 adults in order to examine the factors that contribute to competitive success. The investigators hypothesized that stress would determine differences in competitive success due to the evolutionary pressure that can affect the establishment of social hierarchies observed in animals along with their own trait anxiety (how prone a subject is to seeing the world as worrisome and threatening).

The patients were instructed to take 2 online tests — one to assess their IQ and another to measure their trait anxiety. After 1 week, about half of the patients underwent TSS-G in order to purposely inflict acute social stress, while the other half of the patients did not. Then, all of the patients were given 2 options in a game where they could win money in a lottery or an IQ test matched against another participant.

Almost 60 percent of the non stressed control group chose the IQ score competition instead of the lottery, which demonstrated high confidence in the participants. This was regardless of their trait anxiety scores. The acute stress groups’ participants with low anxiety showed increased competitive confidence compared to their unstressed counterparts; however, the acute stress group participants with high trait anxiety scores showed lower competitive confidence. These results lead the researchers to believe that stress can either raise or lower an individual’s confidence depending on their predisposition to trait anxiety.

The researchers also observed that the stressed patients’ confidence was regulated by cortisol hormones released in response to the stress. The investigators sampled saliva from the stressed patients and tested it for cortisol. In the stressed group, participants with low anxiety had higher confidence and a higher cortisol response to stress. The participants with high anxiety and high cortisol levels were linked to lower confidence.

“People often interpret self confidence as competence,” study author Carmen Sandi said in a press release. “So if the stress of, say, a job interview, makes a person over confident, they will be more likely to be hired — even though they might not be more competent than other candidates. This would be the case for people with low anxiety.”

The authors added that stress must be considered as a direct cause of competitive inequality, as well as a result of it. In the future, Sandi wants to examine the effects of stress on brain imaging, which she believes can change the way researchers and physicians look at the whole picture of social dynamics.

“Stress is an important engine of social evolution,” she concluded. “It affects the individual, and by extension society as whole.”