Is "Fight or Flight" Just a Guy Thing?

For almost a century a universal fight or flight response in humans has been considered an elementary part of human psychology.  More and more it is starting to look like fight-or-flight describes male responses to threats but omits the other half of the story.  Psychologists S.E. Taylor, L.C. Klein, & Colleagues (2000) suggested that females may pursue a different strategy called "Tend and Befriend" for dealing with threats.

Bias In Existing Research

Surprisingly, most of the research done prior to 20 years ago on fight-or-flight responses was dominantly conducted not only by men, but also using almost exclusively male humans, rodents, or other animal subjects in testing.  Of all studies published before 1995 females (of any species) represented only 17% of participants.  The result, of course, is that research was descriptive of male characteristics and responses, but probably ignored female reactions.

Benefits of Tend-and- Befriend

In contrast to fight-or-flight, tend-and-befriend approaches involve social and group responses.  The main problem with fight-or-flight from a evolutionary perspective is that it leaves the youngest members of the group - children - unprotected.  Particularly young children do not yet have the strength to individually fight off a predator or the speed to outrun it.  The younger generation would be at a distinct advantage in a conflict. 

In friend-and-befriend adults protect their young, stay by them, and work as a group to keep threats at a distance.  A large tightly bound group is more difficult for another animal or an aggressive member of their own group to attack.  Also, if the predator does move in, then some members of the group can fight while the other members keep track of offspring, increasing the chance of the new generations survival. 

Is Tend-and-Befriend Just a Female Strategy?

Taylor et al's study has been cited in research over 1,800 times since the article was published.  Skimming the newer research it seems that the friend-and-befriend strategy is well accepted in research communities, but many investigators question if it is really primarily a female strategy. 

In the original article, evidence for tend-and-befriend as a dominantly female strategy rested on findings in biology, animal studies, and evolutionary theory.  

Biologically, oxytocin is a hormone that encourages attachment and bonding in mammals.  Androgens, like testosterone, are associated with fight and flight and other aggressive behaviors.  Testosterone and similar hormones are predominantly male hormones and therefore the authors proposed that aggressive (fight-or-flight) responses are more likely to be found in males than females.  

Animal studies also support this conclusion.  In the wild and in cages females are more likely to have higher levels of oxytocin than males and very often respond to stress involving invaders with licking, grooming, or other social behaviors. 

From an evolutionary perspective, the friend-and-befriend strategy not only helps the species by better protecting the young, but it also protects the female members of a group by providing females and their offspring with an increased measure of protection against aggressive males.  Aggressive males may try to attack females, but they have also been observed to target the offspring of other males.  In both cases, the females have been observed to join together to keep the aggressive or dominant male in line. 

Certainly male animals use social hierarchies and band together as groups to achieve common aims, but Taylor et al. maintain their stance that there are gender differences in terms of which strategy an individual prefers when face with stress.  This research is very important for therapy practices in terms of helping practitioners better recognize and understand effective responses to stress and alternatives to aggression.