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Surprising Science

We Work Harder Under Stress to Get What We Want, But Get No Greater Pleasure

Recent research indicates that humans under stress may exert and unnecessary amount of effort in order to get what they want. But they’ll feel no more pleasure from the reward than someone not under strain.

You may go to great lengths to get what you want, to the point of stressing yourself out in order to get that reward. It could be argued that alcoholics exhibit this kind of behavior, working under the pressure of their addiction just to get that next drink. But that doesn’t mean your efforts will yield greater pleasure when you finally take that sip. A recent study shows that working harder under stress won’t make you enjoy your reward any more than someone not under great strain.

Elahe Izadi from the Washington Post wrote on the study, which argues that while our stress may increase our desire to indulge in certain rewards (i.e. alcohol, sweets, gambling), it doesn’t increase the pleasure we get from them.

The researchers gathered a group of 36 university students—19 of which were self-professed chocolate lovers. They split the group up, instructing one to put their hands in ice cold water (in order to induce stress) while the other submerged their hands in lukewarm water. The researchers swabbed their mouths before and after the stress conditioning, in order to measure their cortisol levels (a hormone responsible for stress).

Participants were then told to grab a handgrip when given a visual cue, which released a chocolate smell. The group under stress gabbed the handgrip with three times more force than the calmer participants. However, the pleasantness of the odor didn’t differ between the groups.

One of the authors, Tobias Brosch of the University of Geneva, said of the study in a press release:

“Stress plays a critical role in many psychological disorders and is one of the most important factors determining relapses in addiction, gambling and binge eating. Stress seems to flip a switch in our functioning: If a stressed person encounters an image or a sound associated with a pleasant object, this may drive them to invest an inordinate amount of effort to obtain it.”

Of course, with such a small sample group, more study will be necessary to prove how everyday stressors contribute to affecting humans in this way. However, previous tests with rodents have proven quite promising, showing that the “wanting” and “liking” parts of the brain operate independently of one another.

Read more at The Washington Post

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


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