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June 9, 2014

She has her way, he has his: Explaining why women and men react to stress differently

Under conditions of social conflict, stress will change how people behave and how conflict is resolved. To assess this, Tomova and her colleagues measured how self-other distinction behaviors are modified by a stress response. These behaviors represent the ability to distinguish self-related mental representations from others' and play an important role in social interactions.

In this study, the researchers observed automatic imitative tendencies ("When I see you smile, I mirror you and smile too"), empathy ("I see you are angry, but I'm able to distinguish your emotion from mine") and perspective taking ("I am able to understand what you are telling me, even if I see the problem under another angle"). They recruited 80 healthy participants, exposed them to a psychosocial stress task and measured how the three behaviors were affected.

Although women and men did not differ in a control "unstressed" condition, women got better at imitative tendencies, empathy, and perspective taking behaviors when stressed, while men got worse. These findings support the hypothesis that women "tend-and-befriend" to resolve a stressful situation, whereas men "fight-or-flight" their way out of it. Tomova and her colleagues believe that these results could be explained by learnt experiences and by the oxytocin system, a hormone involved in social behaviors. This study has potential implications for how psychological interventions and therapies can be tailored for environments with high social conflict.


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