Stress changes our social behavior. Traditionally, stress has been associated with “fight-or-flight” – the tendency to attack an aggressor, or escape the stressor. But stress may also promote the opposite pattern, i.e., “tend-and-befriend” – increased prosociality toward others. It is currently unclear which situational or physiological factors promote one or the other. Here, we hypothesized that stress stimulates both tendencies, but that fight-or-flight is primarily directed against a potentially hostile outgroup, moderated by rapid-acting catecholamines, while tend-and-befriend is mainly shown towards a supportive ingroup, regulated by cortisol. To test this hypothesis, we measured stress-related neurohormonal modulators and sex hormones in male and female participants who were exposed to a psychosocial stressor, and subsequently played an intergroup social dilemma game in which they could reveal prosocial motives towards an ingroup (ingroup-love) and hostility towards an outgroup (outgroup-hate). We found no significant effects of stress on social preferences, but stress-related heart-rate increases predicted outgroup-hostile behavior. Furthermore, when controlling for testosterone, cortisol was associated with increased ingroup-love. Other-regarding behavior was overall higher in male than female participants. Our mixed results are of interest to scholars of the effects of stress on prosocial and aggressive behavior, but call for refinement in future replications.
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