Humans as social beings often have to perform complex social cognitive tasks while under stress (e.g., during a social conflict). Previous research has established that the brain regions responsible for social cognitive tasks are target regions for stress hormones. However, little experimental research has been done testing the acute effects of stress on social cognition. Here, we investigated whether stress exposure and the ensuing glucocorticoid (i.e., cortisol) elevations affect social cognition. Thirty-two men and 32 women were exposed to either a psychosocial stress or a non-stressful control test before assessing their social cognition using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) and the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition (MASC). Results showed differential effects of stress-induced cortisol responses among men and women for the MASC, but not the RMET. Among men. high cortisol responders displayed elevated MASC scores compared with low cortisol responders. Moreover, for stressed men a positive association between the magnitude of the cortisol responses to the stressor and MASC scores emerged. Among women, enhanced MASC scores were found for low cortisol responders relative to high cortisol responders and non-stressed controls. A strong negative association between cortisol reactivity and MASC scores was found among women. These results imply sex specific effects of glucocorticoids on social cognition and partially support the idea of sex differences in biobehavioral stress responses, with men engaging in fight-or-flight responses while women may react to stress with tending and befriending behavior.
Smeets, T., Dziobek, I., & Wolf, O. T. (2009). Social cognition under stress: differential effects of stress-induced cortisol elevations in healthy young men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 55, 507-513. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.01.011