Tend-and-Befriend Response

Tend-and-Befriend Response Definition

In times of stress, humans and many animal species tend and befriend. Tending involves quieting and caring for offspring during stressful times, and befriending involves engaging the social network for help in responding to stress.

Tend-and-Befriend Response Background

Threatening circumstances trigger a cascade of neuroendocrine responses to stress, including engagement of the sympathetic nervous system and corticosteroids that mobilize a person or animal to cope with stress. Consequently, stress responses are heavily marked by physiological arousal. Historically, the prototypical response to stress has been regarded as fight or flight. That is, in response to a threat, arousal mobilizes the person to behave aggressively or assertively (fight), or flee or withdraw instead (flight). Contemporary manifestations of fight responses in humans assume the form of aggressive reactions to stressful circumstances, and flight responses are often manifested as social withdrawal or substance abuse, as through alcohol or drugs.

Although fight or flight is somewhat descriptive of human responses to stress, scientists have noted that social affiliation distinguishes human responses to stress as well, and it has long been known to protect against the adverse changes in mental and physical health that stress can produce. Social support from a partner, relative, friend, or coworkers and from social and community ties reliably reduces cardiovascular and neuroendocrine stress responses and psychological distress. Correspondingly, social isolation has been consistently tied to poor health and a higher risk of mortality in both animal and human studies. Taken together, these findings may account for the robust relations between social support and a lower likelihood of illness, faster recovery from ill-ness, and greater longevity.

Further refining of these social responses to stress has led to the characterization “tend and befriend.” That is, the fight-or-flight response seems incomplete when one realizes that humans have few of the physical resources necessary to do either (e.g., sharp claws, speed). Instead, human survival has depended on group living. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans would not have survived had they not evolved ways of coping with stress that involved the protection of offspring from harm and group living to fend off threats and predators.

Gender Differences in Tend-and-Befriend Response

The tend-and-befriend response to stress appears to be especially characteristic of females. Historically, females have had primary responsibility for the care of offspring, and consequently, the tend-and-befriend responses may have evolved in females especially in light of these selection pressures. That is, a female stands a better chance of protecting both herself and her immature offspring if she tends to those offspring and enlists the help of the social group for protection as well.

What is the evidence that tend-and-befriend characterizes females’ responses to stress? Across the entire life cycle, girls and women are more likely to mobilize social support, especially from other females in times of stress. Compared to men, women seek out social contact more, they receive more social support, they provide more social support to others, and they are more satisfied by the support they receive. Whereas men also draw on social support, especially from their partners, women seek more social support from a broader array of sources, including friends and relatives, and these findings are consistent across many different cultures. The sex difference in women’s seeking of social support in times of stress is modest in size but very robust.

Research suggests that there may be biological underpinnings of these tending and befriending responses. In particular, oxytocin has been identified as an affiliative hormone that is known to increase maternal behavior and affiliative activity. Because the effects of oxytocin are strongly enhanced by the presence of estrogen, oxytocin has been thought to have more important effects on the social behavior of females than males. Although there is modest evidence to date that oxytocin is implicated in these affiliative processes under stress, studies do suggest that oxytocin levels rise when women experience gaps in their social network, potentially providing a neuroendocrine basis for an increased desire to affiliate with others in difficult times. Studies also show that oxytocin reduces sympathetic nervous system arousal and corticosteroid activity and that it is associated with reduced anxiety and a sense of calm. Consistent with this point, tending activities represent adaptive responses to stress, not only because of the protection they provide for offspring but also because tending quells biological stress responses in both offspring and mother. Endogenous opioid peptides, that is, opioids naturally produced by the body, also appear to play a role in these tending and befriending processes.

The exploration of the tend-and-befriend response is a relatively new theoretical and empirical undertaking for social psychologists. This is in large part because, until recently, stress studies were based heavily on animal studies and on males. As females have been included in stress studies, the fact that their responses to stress are more social than men’s has come into focus. This gender difference must not be overstated, however. Both men and women demonstrate affiliative responses to stress, and men profit from social support just as women do. Although oxytocin may not play a role in men’s affiliative behavior (because of its regulation by estrogen), possibly vasopressin, a hormone similar to oxytocin that is regulated in part by androgen, may be implicated. Vasopressin appears to underpin male monogamous behavior, protection of mate and offspring, and guarding of territory, for example, in some rodent studies; however, whether vasopressin plays a role in human behavior is not yet known.

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