The Tend And Befriend Theory – Why The “Fight-Or-Flight” Response Is Only Half The Story

Tend and befriend psychology argues that in response to a threat, women, on average, will have a greater tendency to reduce distress by tending (protecting and nurturing the young) and befriending (maintaining and strengthening social networks). This article explores this theory and the power that social connectedness can have on stress.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
tend and befriend response
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

This article explores the ‘tend and befriend’ theory, a stress response theory that evolved nearly a century after the now infamous fight-or-flight response was coined. Learn what part this theory plays in evolutionary psychology and what open questions remain.

How Do You Human Beings Respond To Stress?

Most of us take for granted that our options are the classic “fight or flight” response – i.e. we flee or else stand and combat the threat. But this is a relatively new concept, with the term being coined by physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1930s. Though Cannon was interested initially in the physiological response to threat, today the theory has dominated thinking about how we respond to emotional, mental and behavioral stress, too.

The theory seems to evoke the image of ancient man in the jungle, turning to run from a ferocious beast or else attacking it to defend himself. But there’s one key thing missing from this story: women. Do women also behave this way?

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The Tend And Befriend Response

“The dominant metaphor, ‘fight or flight,’ represents the threatening social landscape as a solitary kill-or-be-killed world.”Shelley Taylor, PhD, 2002.

Early studies on the human stress response were done by men, on male participants, to explore arguably male scenarios from a male perspective. It’s not the only time psychology has had hidden bias – a 2010 study by Henrich et al. argued that much of the data on which we base so many of our psychological theories comes from research done on WEIRD participants: those from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic countries, often young male psychology undergrads – hardly representative of all humankind!

University of California psychology professor Shelley Taylor attempted to correct this bias in an important 2000 paper, claiming that there’s more to the human stress response story than fight-or-flight. Do men and women respond differently to stress? The biobehavioral “tend and befriend” theory argues that because women have evolved to care for their offspring, there is less survival value for them in fighting or fleeing, and more in cultivating and strengthening social cohesion in times of stress. While fight-or-flight is certainly a physiological response observed in many animals, not just humans, researchers are beginning to argue that women, on average, favor the more behavioral response of tending and befriending.

A Tending & Befriending Brain

Tend and befriend psychology argues that in response to a threat, women will have a greater tendency to reduce distress by tending (protecting and nurturing the young) and befriending (maintaining and strengthening social networks). This is the instinct that tells you to call your mother on the phone for comfort, or seek out time with friends after a crisis. Being built for caregiving, and having distinctly different hormonal and neurochemical profiles from men, women are said to default to a uniquely female strategy of coping and survival.

In the 1990s, Psychologist Rena Repetti found that after a long and stressful workday, women were more likely to be more caring towards their children, whereas men would typically respond to the same stress by withdrawing from family life. The researchers are careful to explain that these are simply tendencies, not inviolable laws – a stressed man can still take care of his child or reach out to friends, and a stressed woman might still occasionally withdraw from her children or social group.

The Effects Of Social Behavior On Stress

The tend and befriend theory is part of evolutionary psychology, which understands modern psychological behavior through the lens of humankind’s evolutionary history as social animals. Human beings evolved with two distinct parental models, with males and females investing differently in the care of offspring. Though natural selection may have favored men who could fight or flee, women may have found better survival by cultivating more social, harmonious group behavior that prioritized the care of the young.

The differences are not merely cultural – in humans, oxytocin is strongly connected to social behavior, bonding, maternal nurturing, friendship and sexual activity. Curiously, there is a sex difference in this hormone’s function: in women, high levels of estrogen amplify the effect of oxytocin while in men, androgenic hormones dampen its effects. Oxytocin has been shown to be released as a response to stress, and women are more likely than men to release oxytocin in response to a threatening situation. So, by engaging in social behavior, protecting others, tending the needs of more vulnerable members in the social group, cultivating affiliation, and seeking out social contact, women relieve stress, both on a biological and a behavioral level.

And it works – all this social behavior has a measurable effect on stress markers in the body, including lower blood pressure and heart rate, lower cortisol, and reduced activity on the HPA axis, which moderates the stress response. And it goes without saying that a loving and cohesive social group is key to mental resilience and psychological wellbeing.

Psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Stephen Porges has even suggested a new model, the so-called polyvagal theory which imagines a “social nervous system” that responds to stress by ramping up the neural connections associated with seeking affiliation with others. There is now plenty of evidence to suggest that a strong social support system is a powerful protective force against stress of all kinds. For example, women have been shown to fare better after divorce than men primarily because they seek out and benefit from social support where men may withdraw.

Read more: Learn about the relaxation response as a natural method of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to reverse the effects of stress.

Correcting A Male-Centric Biased Psychology

If the tend and befriend response is so ubiquitous, you may be wondering why you’ve never heard of it before, or why researchers only began looking into it almost 100 years after the classic fight or flight model was proposed.

An unflattering truth about research psychology is that it is seldom neutral, and subject to all the political, historical and cultural biases of the era from which it originates. Feminist scholars have argued that theories seeking to explore and describe human nature are often really describing male nature, and passing over many fundamental parts of the human experience.

Older psychological theories have often implicitly ignored the existence of gender entirely, assuming that women are simply like men, or that the male patterns of behavior and experience are the obvious norm with women being a variant or even aberration on those. Tending and befriending may seem obvious once a name is put to it, yet sadly the more typically feminine instincts like caregiving and the maintenance of social cohesion are seen as less valuable overall, and certainly less interesting to the research community.

But women’s stress responses are not only advantageous in today’s world, they may have served a vital function in humankind’s survival from its earliest history and development as a species. It’s hard to imagine how any of “man’s” defining achievements – language, civil society, law, cooperation, education, the arts or religion – could come about without the distinctly feminine focus on social cohesion and care.

Taylor claims that it’s time to

“recognize that tending is intrinsic to our nature, at least as vital as the selfishness and aggression that more commonly shape its portrait. When the image we form is of an individualistic person who acts primarily with selfish self-interest, we cannot help but be affected.”

The power of social connectedness is already well understood, and vital for the mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of both men and women. Tend and befriend psychology may signal an encouraging correction to a rather male-centric bias in research psychology, restoring a more complete picture of what it means to be human. The implications are not just theoretical – understanding sex differences in stress response means a better understanding of how to treat stress in both men and women.

An overemphasis on more individualistic responses to stress could mean that many men feel shame in asking for help or seeking emotional support from others – to their detriment. Stress relief advice from mental health professionals may unwittingly endorse these more masculine strategies, suggesting for example meditation, exercise, or withdrawing from others in the face of a threatening situation. But this may leave both men and women more vulnerable to the effects of stress.

Read more: In her series on radical compassion, known clinical psychologist Tara Brach explains how RAIN meditation helps to build better relationships.

Tend And Befriend Is Still Just A Theory

Being part of evolutionary psychology, the tend and befriend theory is subject to all the same criticisms and controversies, namely that some are uncomfortable with the implied gender determinism. 

A worthwhile question is whether women behave in this way because they are “programmed” by physiological instinct and evolution, or whether it’s a result of socialization within a culture that believes women should be cooperative, friendly and caring. Importantly, some critics have wondered whether theories such as this one can be misused to further oppress women. After all, hasn’t the idea that women are meant to shoulder more care work and emotional labor been used to exclude women from public life and relegate them to the domestic realm instead? Other critics agree that men and women may have evolved different responses in our most ancient history, but that the nature of stress in our modern world is very different, and that men and women no longer have drastically different parental investments.

We should interpret these interesting studies carefully, and take heed from their authors who stress that “biology is not destiny,” but rather a tendency or inclination. Neither strategy is right or wrong. Rather, men and women have in-built inclinations and their own unique strengths and weaknesses when it comes to coping with stress. Every person, male or female, can contain both “warrior” and “nurturer” aspects within them, and both strategies have complementary value in our complex (and stressful!) world. 

Further research into the tend and befriend theory is ongoing, but one thing is clear: if we wish to study humankind, we need to become curious about the experiences of all kinds of people, and how we can be mutually enriched by one another’s different perspectives.

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