The Gift Of Gab

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, may now be able to explain why at the end of a stressful day women tend to talk with girlfriends or take care of others, while men tend to go into isolation—zoning out in front of the television or putting in extra hours at work. According to Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, UCLA psychology professor, beyond the fight-or-flight reaction to stress, women may have yet a third response in their arsenal: bonding.

In women, stress hormones are flushed out by oxytocin, a hormone best known for its role in labor and lactation—and also known as the "hormone of love" and the "cuddle chemical." Under duress, blood levels of oxytocin and other hormones were found to increase and evoke calming and nurturing instincts. Taylor calls these "tend and befriend" behaviors. Tending behaviors include taking care of children and cleaning, while befriending is seeking out the company of others. In men, oxytocin is also released in response to stress, but then testosterone kicks in, overriding any calming effects.

Taylor theorizes that oxytocin may be the driving force behind forming and maintaining close social bonds, and because it enhances this ability to nurture and be nurtured, the hormone could also play a key role in women's health—even explaining why women historically live longer than men. That's because close social ties have been shown to reduce the risk of disease and depression as we age.

Taylor further explains this groundbreaking stress research in her just-released book, The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Nurturing (Times Books, 2002). Read it and discuss it at your next kaffeeklatsch, and don't be surprised if you feel less stressed out.

—Kristine Merrill