Until recently, the assumed wisdom has always been that men tend to retreat into themselves during periods of stress. Very often this is accompanied by higher risk behaviors such as gambling, smoking, drinking, unsafe sex and drug use. This form of behavior contrasts with women, who incline more towards a “tend and befriend” response – that is, a protective and social-networking reaction. Given that the tend-and-befriend model was only articulated in the late 1990s, it seems logical that the spotlight has once again targeted the male reaction to stress.
The male-female reaction to stress has always been assumed to have its roots in evolution. Men under stress have always been considered to act more aggressively and to take more risks. There is ample evidence that some men do appear to distract themselves with alcohol and other risky behaviors and can become less tolerant. A second and more recent examination reveals it’s not all fight-or-flight when men are under stress.
A team of neuroscientists and psychologists at the University of Freiburg, Germany, has overturned some long held assumptions about male isolation and its association with stress. The research team developed a public speaking task in order procedure to induce stress. Specially designed social interaction games were then introduced, the aim of which was to measure positive social behaviors like trust and sharing as well as negative behaviors. The male volunteers under stress acted more positively than those not under pressure, while negative social behavior unaffected by stress. The team went on to report that positive social contact with a trusted individual before a stressful situation reduces the stress response as much as during or immediately after a stressful event.
This suggests that the male emotional and behavioral reserves may run deeper than previously assumed. Greater male flexibility is good news and could suggest useful points for intervention. Stress, it now appears, can tease out men’s gentler sides. The higher the man’s heart rates and cortisol levels, the more trusting and friendly he became. Tend and befriend, it appears, is not exclusive to women.
Von Dawans, B., Fishbacher, U., Kirschbaum, C., Fehr, E., Heinrichs, M. "The social dimension of stress reactivity: acute stress increases prosocial behavior in humans." Psychological Science, 2012 (in press).