Dissociable roles of glucocorticoid and noradrenergic activation on social discounting

Zsofia Margittai, Marijn van Wingerden, Alfons Schnitzler, Marian Joëls, Tobias Kalenscher*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


People often exhibit prosocial tendencies towards close kin and friends, but generosity decreases as a function of increasing social distance between donor and recipient, a phenomenon called social discounting. Evidence suggests that acute stress affects prosocial behaviour in general and social discounting in particular. We tested the causal role of the important stress neuromodulators cortisol (CORT) and noradrenaline (NA) in this effect by considering two competing hypotheses. On the one hand, it is possible that CORT and NA act in concert to increase generosity towards socially close others by reducing the aversiveness of the cost component in costly altruism and enhancing the emotional salience of vicarious reward. Alternatively, it is equally plausible that CORT and NA exert dissociable, opposing effects on prosocial behaviour based on prior findings implicating CORT in social affiliation, and NA in aggressive and antagonistic tendencies. We pharmacologically manipulated CORT and NA levels in a sample of men (N = 150) and found that isolated hydrocortisone administration promoted prosocial tendencies towards close others, reflected in an altered social discount function, but this effect was offset by concurrent noradrenergic activation brought about by simultaneous yohimbine administration. These results provide inceptive evidence for causal, opposing roles of these two important stress neuromodulators on prosocial behaviour, and give rise to the possibility that, depending on the neuroendocrine response profile, stress neuromodulator action can foster both tend-and-befriend and fight-or-flight tendencies at the same time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-28
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Cortisol
  • Dictator game
  • Generosity
  • Social discounting
  • Stress
  • Yohimbine


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