We all carry stress at one point or another. The feeling of being overwhelmed with responsibilities, to the point where our central nervous system begins to turn on us, is simply a part of life. Now new research suggests men and women tend to respond in markedly different ways.

Scientists from several international universities found that men under stress generally respond by becoming more withdrawn and acting more as an individual. Women, on the other hand, become prosocial. They share their stress with others, hoping to elicit empathy, and expect to be relied on when other members in their group are stressed, too. Where men become more self-centered, thinking their emotions are universally shared, women often become more compassionate, the team argues.

"There's a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective — and therefore be empathic — and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically,” explained researcher Giorgia Silani, according to Science Daily.

Consider the husband who comes home from work short-tempered and unhappy. He notices the house is a mess — the final push over the edge. Quietly, he picks dirty clothes up off the floor, stewing all the while, and freezing his wife out of conversation. To his mind, he’s being prosocial: He’s making the family’s house more presentable. But to his wife, he’s withdrawing, holed up inside his own head.

Stress, in this case, drives a wedge between the husband and wife. Both people recognized the stress that was present, but reacted in two different ways. As the researchers point out, people either manage stress by reducing the internal load of “extra” resources, or they seek support from external resources. But that’s not what the team initially expected to find.

"Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric,” said co-author Claus Lamm, from the University of Vienna. “Taking a self-centered perspective in fact reduces the emotional/cognitive load. We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic."

What they found, however, was that only males tended toward this behavior. When given tests that put them under motor, emotional, and cognitive stress — each test designed to make subjects mimic other people — women’s performance soared, while men’s suffered. The researchers considered several factors for this difference.

Comparisons of men and women as they relate to behavioral or emotional responses tend to get lost in the spectrum of learned behavior and that which is “hard-wired.” Late last year, scientists created a map of men and women’s neural circuitry, illuminating in full color just how different the two sexes are wired. The scans surprised scientists in how much they upheld stereotypes, such as men excelling in spatial reasoning and technical work and women in socializing and multitasking. Whether these skill sets arise from some evolutionary advantage, or a social machine that favors the stereotypes, is another issue: The observed differences are the same.

There’s also the chemical theory, which recruits hormones to influence behavior. “At a physiological level, the gender difference might be accounted for by the oxytocin system,” said Silani. “Oxytocin is a hormone connected with social behaviors, and [previous research] found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men."

Other research suggests that when stress reaches too high a threshold, all humans tap into their need to become social. A 2000 study points toward a more primitive model of understanding why men become solitary while women seek solidarity.

"Perhaps these gender differences are adaptive with acute stressors," said University of California Santa Barbara psychologist, Nancy Collins, in a statement. "But when you think of longer term stressors, such as hunger, it doesn't make sense to have these gender differences. Men and women need social networks to work it out."

 

Source: Tomova L, von Dawans B, Heinrichs M, Silani G, Lamm C. Is stress affecting our ability to tune into others? Evidence for gender differences in the effects of stress on self-other distinction. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014.