By Nancy K. Dess, published on September 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
On June 21, 2000, in San Leandro, California, a frighteningly familiar scene unfolded: Stuart Alexander, a sausage factory owner, suddenly opened fire on four government meat inspectors, killing three. When asked why he might have lost control, Alexander's friend Michael Smith could offer little explanation, saying, "He was a good man, but pressure, pressure--everybody blows up under pressure."
But does a "man run amok" tendency truly lurk in everyone? In the 1930s, physiologist Walter Cannon proposed that stress triggers two primordial reactions--lashing out or running away. Since then, the "fight or flight" concept has dominated scientific thinking about responses to stress, illuminating the emotional, cognitive, behavioral and biological processes that mediate and modify this basic pattern.
But fight or flight is only part of a bigger picture, according to Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues. In the Psychological Review, the researchers describe how stress can elicit another behavioral pattern they call "tend and befriend"--especially in females. Their new theories may have profound implications for understanding the differences between how men and women react to stress.
Fueled by the observation that stress studies conducted in the past rarely involved females, Taylor's team wondered if women and men might respond to stress differently. They reasoned that the adaptive value of fighting or fleeing may be lower for females, who often have dependent young and so risk more in terms of reproductive success if injured or dislocated. And females of many species form tight, stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out friends for support in times of stress.
With these intriguing possibilities in mind, Taylor and her coworkers plumbed dozens of studies conducted in the last 30 years of species ranging from rats to monkeys to people in diverse cultures. It quickly became clear that, compared to males, females' physical aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense and more "cerebral"--they are displayed in response to specific circumstances and are less tied to physiological arousal. So while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, females seem to use it less.
Instead, Taylor's team found that, during tough times, stressed females spend significantly more time tending to vulnerable offspring than males. Studies by psychologist Rena Repetti in the late 1990's showed that after a hard day at work, women were much more nurturing toward their children, whereas men withdrew from family life. The researchers suspect that endorphins--proteins that help alleviate pain--and oxytocin--a female reproductive hormone--may play an important role in establishing this pattern, while factors like learning and socialization help to maintain it.
Both oxytocin and endorphins may also contribute to the second piece of the puzzle--females' tendency to "befriend." In many mammals, and cross-culturally in humans, females form especially close, stable attachments with other females, often kin. And this tendency for females to affiliate with other familiar people increases during times of stress. Among chimpanzees, this may consist of kissing and friendly grinning; among women, talking on the telephone or "doing lunch." Taylor's team concludes that befriending is "the primary gender difference in adult human behavioral responses to stress."
So while stress can spark a rampage, a kinder, gentler response to adversity is also in our nature. While it's difficult to know what was advantageous millions of years ago, the contemporary benefits seem fairly clear: It has long been known that social support buffers stress for both women and men. Research by psychologist Tiffany Field, anthropologist Jay Kaplan and others shows that tending young and affiliating with friends dramatically reduces stress in humans and other animals, resulting in improved immune function, mood and a host of other rewards. Indeed, in The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier & Better Off Financially (Doubleday, 2000), Linda J. Wake, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, and co-author Maggie Gallagher, assert that one major benefit of marriage is having someone to talk to during periods of stress. But Taylor's research supports a new and compelling case that stress elicits prosocial behavior, especially in females, and that this dynamic is deeply rooted in the evolution of social mammals.
Evolutionary thinking about gender differences may seem to imply that behavior is a simple matter of genes, or it may even justify stereotyping of the two sexes, but according to Taylor and her colleagues, life is much more interesting than that; our biological heritage is not destiny but rather a force that "influences and interacts with social, cultural, cognitive and emotional factors." So while this work doesn't fully explain gender differences in reactions to stress, it does pave the way for exciting new avenues of interdisciplinary research on how stress affects our lives.