"Tend or befriend" is a psychological response some people may have to stress, complementing the flight or fight response. Psychology researcher Shelley Taylor initiated research into this subject to explore the need for affiliation that appears to arise in human populations during stressful circumstances. Her research suggests that there may be some gendered aspects to the response, as the "tend or befriend" impulse tends to be stronger in women. It appears to be triggered by the release of hormones like oxytocin, which can occur when the body responds physiologically to stress.
The flight or fight paradigm still plays a role in responses to stress. Taylor's "tend or befriend" research deepens the understanding of how human beings handle stress, as some people very clearly do not fight or flee in response to stressful situations. They may provide assistance to people in need, the tend component to her theory, and can also establish social connections, befriending people in similar circumstances. This response can play a particularly key role in humanitarian crises.
Taylor's research team found that the "tend or befriend" response was particularly strong among women. This adds further information to the discussions in psychology about nurturing tendencies among women. It was historically believed that women had an ingrained nurturing instinct, while later research suggested this was not the case. Taylor's research shows there may be a balance between these extremes, and that some women can exhibit nurturing responses under stress. This could be a logical adaptation, allowing more members of a society to survive stressful situations by ensuring they get care.
Establishment of social connections can also be an important response to stress. Survival through stressful periods can be more likely for people with friends and a supportive social network, as isolation can leave people vulnerable. People who "tend and befriend" can share resources, look out for each other, and provide emotional support to increase their chances of survival, whether in a famine or a riot. Satisfying the need for affiliation can also help reduce stress levels.
Psychologists with an interest in how people respond to stress recognize that numerous systems can play a role. Some responses to stress are socialized, while others appear to be more innate. Studies on tending and befriending may explain, for example, why some people respond to stress by calming down and providing assistance, while others become agitated. Doctors, nurses, and other first responders may have a strong "tend or befriend" response that helps them manage the stress of their work.