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Stress Increases Empathy in Women, Decreases It in Men

New research from Vienna finds a big gender gap in how we respond to stressful situations.
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(Photo: baki/Shutterstock)

(Photo: baki/Shutterstock)

In times of stress, women turn to their friends, while men turn inward. A cliché? Perhaps, but newly published research finds it’s absolutely true.

A research team led by University of Vienna psychologist Claus Lamm reports males and female respond to stressful situations in virtually opposite ways. Men become more egocentric, while women heighten their ability to understand the perspective of others.

“Social interaction skills improve in women under stress,” the researchers write in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. They specifically found stress spurred women to override normal levels of self-centeredness and respond to others with heightened empathy. The opposite appears to be true of men.

Men respond to stress in a fight-or-flight manner, conserving their energy for the confrontation they fear is coming by turning inward. Women, on the other hand, take a "tend-and-befriend" approach.

As the researchers note, there are two basic responses to taxing situations. Stressed individuals may default to a self-centered state; being less demanding than taking into account the thoughts and emotions of others—this conserves mental and emotional resources. Alternatively, they might be motivated to turn open-heartedly to others, “using social support as a stress-coping strategy.”

To find out which method predominates, they recruited 40 men and 40 women between the ages of 18 and 40. Half of the participants underwent the not-at-all-fun Trier Social Stress Test, in which they delivered a speech and performed mental arithmetic in front of an audience. The others spent that same amount of time on pleasantly non-stressful activities, such as “easy counting.”

All then performed three tasks intended to measure their ability to distinguish their own feelings and perceptions from those of others. In one, they were instructed to “move objects on a shelf according to the instructions of a director.” Doing so correctly “required participants to disentangle their own visual perspective” from that of the director.

The results were consistent across the board: Stressed women were better than their relaxed counterparts at understanding the perspective of others. For men, however, stress had the opposite effect, diminishing their ability to understand what someone else was thinking or feeling.

This suggests that men respond to stress in a fight-or-flight manner, conserving their energy for the confrontation they fear is coming by turning inward. Women, on the other hand, take a “tend-and-befriend” approach.

“Importantly, we did not find gender differences in physiological and subjective stress responses,” the authors note. The men and women of the study had the same physiological reaction to the stressful situations; the only difference was their method of coping.

The researchers are unsure of the reasons behind the gender divide they discovered. Previous research has found “women are more prone to seek social support in general,” they write. “Thus they might have learned by experience that they receive more support when they are able to relate more accurately to others.”

On a hormonal level, “the gender difference might be accounted for by the oxytocin system,” noted co-author Giorgia Silani of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Italy. “Oxytocin is a hormone connected with social behaviors, and a previous study found that in conditions of stress, women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.”

In any event, these very different coping methods can lead to misunderstandings, anger, and, ironically, more stress. But this research points out that both responses are automatic, and may even have a basis in biology.

So when things get tense, you might want to cut your partner, or opposite-sex colleague, some slack. The distance between Mars and Venus is quite sizable, and in times of stress, the two planets pull even further apart.