Being Under A Little Stress Makes You Show Your “True” Self, This Study Says

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We all wonder sometimes what we're truly like underneath it all — whether we're truly introverts to our core, or if there's a social butterfly just aching to come out, for instance. A new study published in Nature Communications reveals that there's one kind of simple way to figure out how selfish or generous you truly are: put yourself in a seriously stressful situation where you have to decide what to do immediately. The results, the scientists say, show the true side of someone's character, and demonstrate whether you're inherently pro-social or inclined to look out for number one first.

This isn't an entirely new theory. After all, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that "a woman is like a tea bag; you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water." But the new experiment looked at the particular aspect of our behavior that determines how we act towards others, and whether we prioritize their wellbeing or our own when push comes to shove. Finding yourself in a bit of hot water might be stressful, but it also might help you gain insights about yourself, especially as it relates to how you may treat others.

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In the small study, over 100 college students played a game in which they decided how to divide a sum of money between themselves and others; in some cases, they had to give up a small amount of money to give their invisible partner $10 or more, while in others they had to give up a large chunk to give their partner comparatively little. The researchers manipulated how much time the participants had to make their decision. If they only had a super short time period, like two seconds, the students were likely to fall back on the decisions they'd made before; if they'd always been selfish, they stayed selfish, and vice versa. If they were given more time, though, they were inclined to sit, consider their decision and often reverse it, to give themselves more gain or help out the other person.

We may really want to keep all the chocolate to ourselves, but having a think on it will reveal that it's a good idea to share it with our roommates.

Why does this matter? Because the decisions you make when you're in a rush or a panic can't be discounted. They might actually give the biggest clues about who you are and how you view the world. If you have to make a split-second decision to go to a party or stay home — or to keep a bit of money or share it — the results will likely be truer to your own disposition than those you make at your own leisure. We often know ourselves pretty well, and will recognize the knee-jerk decision as true to our character — but that doesn't mean it's what we really want or need. We may really want to keep all the chocolate to ourselves, but having a think on it will reveal that it's a good idea to share it with our roommates.

This is important psychological knowledge. Next time anybody tries to back out of a decision or disclaim a problem because they "didn't have time" to think it through, note whether that decision was aimed at benefiting them or at other people. According to this new study, it's a pretty good insight into who they really are.