When you are facing stressful situations with another person, is it better for them to stay calm or be stressed out alongside you? Though it may seem intuitive that it is preferable for one party to remain calm, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that when the stress is validated, reactivity can decrease, but only for women.
Many stressful experiences in life are shared, from work problems to final exams to family drama. Despite this, most research has focused on individual experiences of stress and how others can support them.
Research has not delved deeply into how a shared reality or experience can change how people experience stress reactivity. This study seeks to address some lingering questions such as how a shared inner state could potentially affect an individual’s stress level and whether or not these effects will show gender differences.
“More than 20 years ago, Taylor et al. (2000) theorized that males and females respond differently to stressful situations. Males exhibit ‘fight or flight’ responses and females exhibit ‘tend-and-befriend’ responses on average,” wrote study authors Megan R. Goldring and colleagues.
“At the outset, we thought that females who create shared reality could be those who experience less psychological and physiological reactivity to co-experienced stressors. This would happen because females must swiftly bond together to ward off threats, which would be best achieved when they have a shared reality about the stressor.”
For their study, Goldring and colleagues utilized a sample of 70 female undergraduate Columbia students for Study 1 and 102 heteronormative romantic couples cohabitating in the New York City area for Study 2.
Participants in Study 1 were asked to give a speech in front of a panel with a confederate. The confederate either agreed with the participant’s views of the speech, shares they view it in the opposite way, or does not express their opinion. Stress was assessed through self-report and physiological measures. Participants in Study 2 kept a 14-day diary of stressors and how much stress they experienced during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Measures included shared stressors, subjective shared reality, and psychological stress.
Results for Study 1 showed that participants reported being less anxious when they were in the shared reality condition, as compared to the both the different reality condition and the ambiguous condition. Both self-reported stress and physiological stress, such as heart rate, were lower.
Results for Study 2 showed gender differences in stress. Women were significantly more anxious on days that there was a co-experienced stressor. While men’s anxiety also increased, it was to a much lesser extent.
Additionally, shared reality reduced stress in 99% of the women in this study. In stark contrast, 58% of men showed increased stress when they experienced shared reality with their partner. This suggests significant sex differences in how stressors affect people.
“We find our preliminary results interesting in light of the fact that most stressful situations in the modern world include other people; people must jointly tackle stressful work situations with a boss, colleague, or subordinate, people must jointly deal with family issues in a complicated healthcare landscape, and people mutually face situations like delayed transportation and climate change with strangers,” the researchers said.
“Fighting or fleeing is unlikely to help people deal with these types of stressors. Our work implies that females may be especially adept at dealing with the types of stressors they face, at least in the United States, as they benefit from the psychological experience of aligning with another person on the meaning of those stressful situations.”
This study took steps into better understanding how shared reality can affect stress levels. Despite this, it has some limitations to note. Firstly, gender differences were only measured among couples; future research should see if there are gender differences in an experiment like Study 1 where the shared reality is with a stranger. Additionally, the samples for both studies could have constrained generalizability due to Study 1 utilizing only undergraduate women and Study 2 utilizing only heteronormative couples in New York City.
Nevertheless, the findings “support our hypotheses, pointing to the beneficial effect of shared reality,” the researchers concluded. “Together, this work implies that shared reality plays a critical role in stressor reactivity among females and some males. We invite future researchers to deepen the theoretical implications of these findings as the field continues to investigate the role of shared reality, biology, and sex in reactivity to co-experienced stressors.”
The study, “Shared Reality Can Reduce Stressor Reactivity“, was authored by Megan R. Goldring, Federica Pinelli, Niall Bolger, and E. Tory Higgins.