Feature Archive

Stress and the Sexes

The Nurturing Instinct

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

When trouble's brewing, a guy will battle it out -- or grab a cold one and sulk. Women will likely reach for the phone, talk it out with a friend. Men and women just don't deal with stress in the same way.

If you've taken a psychology course in the past 50 years, you're familiar with the concept of "fight or flight" -- the supposedly automatic human stress response that has been linked to all sorts of health problems, including heart disease.

But new research -- drawing on psychology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience -- shows that there are distinct differences in how men and women react to stressors or aggressors. While men will fight -- or simply hide -- women have a stronger instinct to "tend and befriend," says Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, a psychology professor at UCLA and author of The Tending Instinct.

A woman is biologically hard-wired to nurture, provide comfort, and seek social support in times of stress, Taylor writes. Our hormones, brain chemistry, and response to the world around us all reflect this natural instinct. Men have this instinct too, but to a lesser degree because of hormone differences and personal choices, she says.

"I'm proposing a different way of looking at human nature, one that orients us away from selfishness, greed, and aggression, one that looks at the multiple ways that people tend to each other's needs," Taylor tells WebMD.

We can see it in recent tragedies, she says. "We look at Sept. 11 and see proof of aggressive nature, but you can also see substantial proof of our tending nature as well. The ways in which people took care of each other was really very striking."

Providing care, befriending others -- it's a drive that can be found in the earliest cultures, says Taylor. Evidence also exists around the world today and in other species, like rats and monkeys, that women naturally bond, especially in times of stress.

"It's a female's instinct to protect our offspring from harm, to get food," she tells WebMD. In the most primitive hunter-gatherer cultures, "women who turned to women friends for help probably accomplished those two vital tasks better than those who did not."

The long-held tradition of babysitting is a good example, she says. "Taking care of another's offspring is a very, very old tradition among women. Primarily, you left them with female relatives, but you also left them with friends. And if you're going to leave your children with someone, you need to know as much as you can about them."

The tendency to befriend begins early in childhood, Taylor adds. "Whereas boys are playing action-oriented, aggressive games in large groups, girls are playing in small groups. They sit close together, they touch each other more, they are together ... establishing intimate friendships."

The complexity of our hormones drives this instinct, says Taylor.

When the "fight or flight" response kicks in, there are two factors at work, she explains. On the biological end, there's arousal of the sympathetic nervous system as well as the hormones -- and that's true for both men and women. The heart starts pounding and adrenaline pumps in response to fear.

But in women, the hormone oxytocin seems to down-regulate that stress response, she says. Oxytocin is released during labor and nursing, and creates bonding between mother and child. It's also a stress hormone that is released during some stressful events, reliably producing a state of calm so she can care for her children. Estrogen and progesterone enhance this maternal behavior, she says.

Consider a study of female sheep: When injected with oxytocin, their maternal behavior increased greatly, reports Taylor. "The mother sheep groomed and touched their infants more after the oxytocin injection, behaviors that both reflected the mother's calm, nurturing mind and induced a similar soothed state in the offspring," she writes.

When female animals are injected with oxytocin, they also "behave as if a social switch has been turned on: they seek out more social contact with their friends and relatives," she writes.

Men (and male animals) also have oxytocin, but testosterone appears to reduce the effects, she adds. Fatherhood is likely more flexible -- men are good fathers when they choose to be, Taylor says. "With mothers, nature provides some firm biological nudges."

As we know, children who are nurtured fare better than those who do not. In fact, nurturing can even overcome some genetic-based behaviors, Taylor tells WebMD.

One study involved rhesus monkeys with a genetic risk for low levels of serotonin, which is associated with moody and aggressive behavior.

"If those animals don't get adequate maternal attention in infancy, they are basically shunned by their peers, left out of the dominance hierarchy," says Taylor.

However, when they get good maternal care, the aggressive behavior often doesn't emerge. "Instead, the babies actually manage to achieve normal serotonin levels, and [when they grow up] they're often among the highest ranking animals in their troops," she says.

"The sole thing that appears to differentiate these two groups is the amount of maternal tending they get," Taylor says.

The "tend-and-befriend" theory is "worth pursuing," Jim Winslow, PhD, a behavioral neuroscience researcher at Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, told WebMD in a previous interview on this subject. "It is true that in some primate species like the rhesus monkey, females will tend to maintain social status and reconcile social conflict by forming alliances and relying on social partners for support."

This is not necessarily true of all monkeys or our nearest 'neighbors,' the chimps, Winslow tells WebMD. "In bonobo chimps, it's indeed the case that females resolve conflicts more often using ... relationships rather than fight-or-flight responses, but in female pygmy chimps, aggression is the predominant mode of expression."

Winslow, who has been studying oxytocin for nearly a decade, tells WebMD that he doubts oxytocin is the mechanism that causes women to bond rather than fight. In fact, in men, the hormone vasopressin, which "does a really good job of enhancing a male's ability to bond," he tells WebMD. "So the genders aren't that different. The capacities are there in both genders. In humans, there are probably shades of differences. But we're talking shades of differences, not extremes."

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 4:33:04 AM