When stress strikes, women are said to turn to their social ties for support, while men are supposed to become aggressive. But new research finds that these gender stereotypes don't always hold true.
In fact, men under stress are more likely to trust others, behave in a trustworthy manner and to share resources, a new study finds.
Earlier research has suggested that when under stress, men take a "fight-or-flight" approach, becoming more aggressive, while women are more likely to "tend-and-befriend," reaching out to others. The new study, published May 16 in the journal Psychological Science, finds that stressed men are also tenders-and-befrienders.
"Apparently men also show social approach behavior as a direct consequence of stress," study researcher Bernadette von Dawans, of the University of Freiburg in Germany, said in a statement. [6 Gender Myths Busted]
The researchers recruited 67 male students from the University of Zurich to test their responses to stress. About half of the men were put under stress by public speaking and by having to complete a tough mental-math test. The other half mimicked these activities in a laid-back way, completing a stress-free group read-along and an easy counting task.
After being sufficiently stressed or unstressed, the participants played a series of trust and sharing games with real money at stake with another group of volunteers. These games involved making choices about how much to trust a partner, whether to earn the partner's trust or betray them, and whether to share or hoard money.
The men also completed a simple roll-of-the-dice gambling game to gauge how aggressively risky they were willing to be in a non-social context.
During the whole experiment, researchers monitored the men's heart rate and the concentration of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their saliva.
Easing stress through social behavior
Despite the stereotype of stressed-out men as aggressors, stress actually increased men's kind and gentle behavior, the researchers found. The higher the men's heart rates and cortisol levels, the more trusting, trustworthy and generous behavior they exhibited in the games. In other words, stress made men friendlier.
There was no difference in anti-social or risk-taking behavior between the stressed and relaxed men, the study found. In the gambling game, for example, stressed participants weren't any more likely to take big risks than the non-stressed guys. That means that the stress response is specific to social behavior.
The study does not allow a direct comparison of men and women's stress coping mechanisms, because only men were included. Nevertheless, the researchers wrote, the findings reveal that tend-and-befriend is not exclusive to women.
"From previous studies in our laboratory, we already knew that positive social contact with a trusted individual before a stressful situation reduces the stress response, study researcher Markus Heinrichs of the University of Freiberg said in statement. "Apparently, this coping strategy is anchored so strongly that people can also change their stress responses during or immediately after the stress through positive social behavior."