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Tend and befriend is a behavior exhibited by some animals, including humans, when under threat. It refers to protection of offspring (tending) and seeking out the social group for mutual defense (befriending) that was theorized as having evolved as the typical female response to stress, just as the primary male response was Fight-or-flight. The tend-and-befriend idea was originally developed by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team at the University of California, Los Angeles and first described in a Psychological Review article published in the year 2000 (Taylor et al., 2000).
Fight or flight versus tend and befriend
The dominant model of the human responses to stress has been the fight or flight response. In response to threat, humans (and other animals) can become aggressive and confront a stressor (fight) or flee either literally or through avoidant coping, such as social withdrawal or substance abuse. From the standpoint of human beings, however, this analysis of stress responses is incomplete. Another tendency is to affiliate, that is, to come together in groups in threatening times. This tend and befriend response refers to the fact that people often manage threats by caring for offspring and seeking social support in time of stress.
Biological bases of tend and befriend
Many scientists now believe that there is an affiliative neurocircuitry that prompts affiliation especially in response to stress. Research suggests that this system regulates social approach behavior, much as hunger, thirst, or sexual drives are biologically regulated. A biological basis for this regulation appears to be oxytocin.
Oxytocin has been tied to a broad array of social relationships and activities, including peer bonding, sexual activity, and affiliative preferences. Oxytocin is released in humans in response to at least some stressors, especially those that may trigger affiliative needs. Oxytocin prompts affiliative behavior, including maternal tending and social contact with peers. Thus affiliation under stress serves tending needs, including protective response towards offspring, and may also take the form of befriending, namely seeking social contact for one's own protection, the protection of offspring, and the protection of the social group. These social responses to threat reduce biological stress responses, including elevated heart rate, blood pressures, and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis stress responses, such as cortisol.
Benefits of affiliation under stress
Why would humans and some animals have a biologically-regulated affiliative system? Looking at affiliation from the standpoint of evolutionary theory makes it clear that there would be clear survival benefits of affiliative response to threat. Tending activities also reduce biological stress responses in both parents and offspring, thereby reducing stress-related threats to their health.
Likewise "befriending" leads to substantial mental and physical health benefits in times of stress. Social isolation is tied to a significantly enhanced risk of mortality, whereas social support is tied to a broad array of beneficial health outcomes, including reduced risk of illness and death.
Gender differences in tend and befriend
Tend and befriend has been heavily studied in females. One reason for this fact is that estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin which, as noted, is believed to be an important biological underpinning of tend and befriend.
There are evolutionary bases for believing that female responses to stress may be better characterized by tend and befriend than those of males as well. In early human history when the human stress response evolved, work was largely sex segregated, with women responsible for child care. Accordingly, selection pressures for responses to threat that benefit both self and offspring would have been greater for females than for males, favoring social responses to threat in women. Research shows that women are, in fact, more likely to seek the company of others in times of stress, compared to men.
Male behavior under stress may be better characterized by the fight or flight response. Although both men and women show the biological fight or flight pattern of arousal (e.g., elevated heart rate and blood pressure), men's behavior under stress is better characterized by fight (aggression) and by flight (social withdrawal, substance abuse) in response to stress.
Women have higher life expectancies from birth in most countries where there is equal access to medical care. In the United States, for example, this difference is almost 6 years. It has been hypothesized that one reason may be that men's responses to stress (which include aggression, social withdrawal, and substance abuse) place them at risk for adverse health-related consequences, whereas women's more social responses to stress are healthier behaviors. Whether these gender differences in responsivity to stress help to explain the gender gap in mortality is not yet known (other possible factors abound, such as estrogen stimulating the immune system while testosterone suppresses it, or the evolutionary pressure to withstand the stresses of near-constant pregnancy in pre-modern cultures leaving modern women with generally untapped reserves).
However, it should be noted that this phenomena is considered by many in the field of psychology to be inaccurate and unfounded. There is little evidence to suggest that either one of these responses is significantly more likely to occur in a particular gender, and has brought into question the validity and motivation of Shelley Taylor's original research (as the results she found have only infrequently been replicated in subsequent experiments) and on some level, her tend-and-befriend vs. fight-or-flight model is sexist, by falsely categorizing the personality types of both men and women.
- Coping (psychology)
- Fight-or-flight response
- Need for affiliation
- Peer support
- Positive psychology
- Social support
- Cohen, S., & Wills, T.A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310–357.
- Taylor, S.E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B.P., Gruenewald, T.L., Gurung, R.A.R., & Updegraff, J.A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 411–429.
- Renew - Stress on the Brain (popular expositions with references). Franklin Institute. URL accessed on May 09, 2012.
- Carter, C.S., Lederhendler, I.I., & Kirkpatrick, B., eds. (1999). The integrative neurobiology of affiliation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
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- Light, K.C., Smith, T.E., Johns, J.M., Brownley, K.A., Hofheimer, J.A., & Amico, J.A. (2000). Oxytocin responsivity in mothers of infants: A preliminary study of relationships with blood pressure during laboratory stress and normal ambulatory activity. Health Psychology, 19, 560–567.
- Taylor, S.E. (2002). The tending instinct: How nurturing is essential to who we are and how we live. New York: Holt.
- McCarthy, M.M. (1995). Estrogen modulation of oxytocin and its relation to behavior. In Oxytocin: Cellular and molecular approaches in medicine and research, edited by R. Ivell and J. Russell. New York: Plenum Press.
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