Mind & Body

Instead of "Fight or Flight," Women Might "Tend and Befriend"

When trouble rears its ugly head, you've got two options: You can run for the hills, or you can stand and face it like a man. Hold on — maybe there are some other choices. You could check in on the most vulnerable people around you and make sure they're safe. You could also team up with your friends to take it on together. Perhaps "fight or flight" isn't the only fear response we've got hard-wired into our brains.

Male-Order Science

You're probably aware that gender bias is a major problem in the world, and laboratory experiments are no exception. It's well-documented that past and present experiments have shown a tendency to examine only male subjects, both animal and human. As a result. you end up with an incomplete picture of the phenomenon you're trying to learn about — and whether you're testing drugs, explaining behaviors, or describing symptoms, a scientific approach that only looks at one gender will miss all the ways that element varies along gender lines.

The concept of "fight or flight" is a prime example. First described by the esteemed physiologist Walter Cannon in 1915, the fight-or-flight response was borne out in experimentation over the years — experimentation that focused almost exclusively on male participants and subjects. And it wasn't until 2000 that psychologist Shelley E. Taylor re-examined the results of various studies to describe another possible set of reactions to a threat.

She and her team examined 200 studies on stress responses performed between 1985 and 2000 and found several forms of gender bias. For one thing, nearly two-thirds of the experiments' participants were men. That's actually an improvement on earlier studies, for which women constituted a dismal 17 percent. Significantly, the studies that did include more women tended to focus on affiliative or connection-seeking behaviors, and those with stronger male biases tended to lean toward finding physiological explanations.

Tend or Befriend

When she looked back through the relatively scarce reports of female responses to stress, Taylor found a pattern of behavior that didn't closely resemble the flight-or-flight response at all. Instead, she found that women had two other courses of action they might opt for. They might "tend" — that is, check on and care for vulnerable members of their community, especially children — or "befriend," which is to coordinate with able members of their community to defend themselves and address the threat.

Like Cannon saw fight or flight, Taylor sees this different type of response as an evolutionary adaptation to ensure the survival of the species. In truth, there is some evidence for a strong biological component. Specifically, fear triggers the production of oxytocin (which is sometimes called the "bonding hormone") in both men and women, but research suggests that testosterone suppresses the effects of the hormone while estrogen enhances it. Still, given the controversial nature of evolutionary psychology, we're a little hesitant to subscribe wholeheartedly to natural selection as the reason we either fight-or-flight or tend-or-befriend. But one thing is for sure: Whether the explanation is biological, evolutionary, psychosocial, or all of the above, the evidence points to the dire need to address gender imbalance on both sides of the microscope.

Sometimes the part of your brain obsessed with self-preservation doesn't actually have your best interests in mind. Pick up "Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century" by Marc Schoen to find out when tending, befriending, fighting, or flight won't work out. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 5, 2018

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