Time-dependent changes in altruistic punishment following stress

Christiaan H Vinkers, Jelle V Zorn, Sandra Cornelisse, Susanne Koot, Lotte C Houtepen, Berend Olivier, Joris C Verster, René S Kahn, Marco P M Boks, Tobias Kalenscher, Marian Joëls

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Decisions are rarely made in social isolation. One phenomenon often observed in social interactions is altruistic punishment, i.e. the punishment of unfair behavior by others at a personal cost. The tendency for altruistic punishment is altered by affective states including those induced by stress exposure. Stress is thought to exert bi-directional effects on behavior: immediately after stress, reflex-like and habitual behavior is promoted while later on more far-sighted, flexible and goal-directed behavior is enhanced. We hypothesized that such time-dependent effects of stress would also be present in the context of altruistic punishment behavior. Healthy male participants (N=80) were exposed to either a grouped stress test or a control condition. Participants were tested in prosocial decision making tasks either directly after stress or 75 min later. Altruistic punishment was assessed using the Ultimatum Game. General altruism was assessed with a one-shot version of the Dictator Game in which an anonymous donation could be offered to a charitable organization. We found that stress caused a bi-directional effect on altruistic punishment, with decreased rejection rates in the late aftermath of stress in response to ambiguous 30% offers. In the Dictator Game, stressed participants were less generous than controls, but no time-dependent effect was observed, indicating that the general reward sensitivity remained unchanged at various time-points after stress. Overall, during the late aftermath after acute stress exposure (i.e. 75 min later), participants acted more consistent with their own material self-interest, and had a lower propensity for altruistic punishment, possibly through upregulation of cognitive self-control mechanisms. Thus, our findings underscore the importance of time as a factor in simple, real-life economic decisions in a stressful social context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1467-75
Number of pages9
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes

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