Publication Date

Spring 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Cheryl Chancellor-Freeland


cortisol, gender, social cognition, social decision-making, stress, tend and befriend

Subject Areas

Neurosciences; Psychobiology; Psychology


Some hypothesized that when stressed, females activate tend-and-befriend, a stress response that enhances social abilities. Yet, critics argued this stress response is not exclusive to females and others suggested that males and females have different stress responses associated with social skills. This study intended to address these criticisms by testing whether males exhibit prosocial responses to stress and if particular stress responses improved social skills. To do this, 70 healthy introductory psychology students from a large public university in northern California were recruited to participate. Using random assignment, half of these individuals were exposed to an acute stressor and another half were not. They were then asked to complete questionnaires, social decision-making games, and a social inference task. Saliva samples containing cortisol, a stress biomarker, were collected to measure the intensity of bodily stress response. Neither stressed males nor stressed females exhibited changes to social behavior. However, this study also found that females’ social cognition remained unaffected despite stress. In contrast, males who had a low cortisol stress response showed diminished social cognitive skills. This finding supports the tend-and-befriend theory’s notion that females possess a specialized stress response geared towards social affiliation.