Acute psychosocial stress and everyday moral decision-making in young healthy men: The impact of cortisol

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Abstract

In everyday life, moral decisions must frequently be made under acute stress. Although there is increasing evidence that both stress and cortisol affect moral judgment and behavior as well as decision-making in various domains unrelated to morality, surprisingly few attempts have been made to explore the effects of stress on everyday moral decision-making. Therefore, in the present study, we exposed 50 young healthy men to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) or its non-stressful placebo version (PTSST). We investigated the impact of acute stress exposure and stress-related cortisol levels on decision-making, decision certainty, and emotions in 28 everyday moral conflict situations with altruistic versus egoistic response alternatives. Results showed that the TSST-exposed group made more altruistic decisions than the non-stress control group, while groups did not differ in decision certainty and emotion ratings. Moreover, in correlational as well as regression analyses, additionally controlling for confounding variables, we observed significant positive associations between cortisol levels and altruistic decision-making. Further analyses revealed that altruistic decisions came along with significantly higher decision certainty and significantly more positive emotion ratings than egoistic decisions. Notably, our data also raise the idea that the personality trait agreeableness plays an important role in everyday moral decision-making. In sum, our findings provide initial evidence that both acute stress exposure and cortisol levels have prosocial effects on everyday moral decision-making in young healthy men.

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