Daniel Barrett examines the different ways in which men and women react to stress.
In the face of threats, do men always fight? Do women always nurture? Maybe, maybe not. Recent research suggests that men sometimes demonstrate the same stress responses that people stereotypically associate with women. The details:
For decades psychologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists have claimed that the human stress response can be boiled down to “fight or flight.” We have all heard of this: when faced with significant stress—such as an immediate threat to one’s wellbeing—people will either fight to ward off the threat or retreat from it to a safer position. The physiologist Walter Cannon proposed this idea approximately one hundred years ago, and it was largely accepted without question until social psychologist Shelley Taylor tackled the issue.
Taylor and her collaborators (2000) undermined this “canon” of psychology by arguing that, unlike men, women typically demonstrate a “tend-and-befriend” pattern. Taylor noted that most of the evidence supporting the “flight–or-fight” model was gathered from research on men (and male rats!), an unfortunate artifact that challenges the purported universality of this and many other findings in psychology. After reviewing existing research and conducting her own on human females, Taylor concluded that there are sex-based biobehavioral differences in our stress responses. But even more recent research by von Dawans, Fischbacher, Kirschbaum, Fehr, and Heinrichs (2012) suggests that men, too, may sometimes demonstrate the “female” behaviors. These researchers don’t refute Taylor’s findings, but they do refine them.
The general argument is based on evolutionary logic and goes something like this: It behooves individuals of any species to be able to ascertain the nature and severity of a threat to survival in order to react appropriately. We need to be able to “size up” a potential predator to determine if we can fend it off or should instead retreat. Which response makes sense depends on the situation.
This need to size up a threat applies to males and females, largely because both must “solve” similar evolutionary problems regarding survival of the self and the offspring. However, in most animal species—including humans—females are more invested in the offspring than are males. According to Taylor, one consequence of this differential parental investment is that human females are more likely to “tend”—provide caring and shelter for the offspring. In addition, females demonstrate more “befriending” of others in order to create social networks that can offer additional protection and support. Admittedly, I am simplifying Taylor’s argument and leaving out much of the support she provides for it, but you get the gist.
Along come von Dawans and company doing what science does best, which is to continually re-examine, revise, and refine (and occasionally overturn) past findings. In this study males participated in a series of games either alone or with a partner, and half of them—those in the stress condition—were exposed to the threat of being evaluated on their performance. During the games the participants needed to make decisions that were either prosocial (trusting or sharing with another male), antisocial (punishing another male), or nonsocial. In a nutshell, this experiment found that stressed men were more likely to engage in the “tend-and-befriend” pattern that emphasized trusting and sharing than were the nonstressed men in the control condition.
This research shows that, at least under certain conditions, stressed men will “act like” stressed women and tend and befriend. However, as the researchers point out, since women were not included in this study, we don’t know how the male behaviors would compare to female behaviors in this context. It is possible that women would demonstrate stronger prosocial trends, similar trends, or weaker trends.
Let’s keep in mind that this is just one study, one way of applying stress, and laboratory-based. I don’t know how much we can generalize the results to other stressors or other situations.
What are your thoughts? How different do you think men and women are in this regard? How do you respond to stress?
Daniel W. Barrett, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Western Connecticut State University