Under stress, we fight or flee, or so scientists have long preached. But this response may really be just a guy thing. New evidence shows how, unlike men, women under stress “tend and befriend,” engaging in nurturing and social networking.

At the Cognitive Neuroscience Society 2010 annual meeting in Montreal, psychologist Mara Mather of the University of Southern California and her colleagues asked male and female volunteers to place their hand in ice water, which makes the stress hormone cortisol shoot up. Then they looked at angry or neutral faces while lying inside a brain scanner.

Men showed less activity in a key face-processing region of the brain than the unstressed men did, suggesting that their ability to evaluate facial expressions declined. In contrast, the region was more active in stressed women. Moreover, these women showed greater activity in the brain circuit that enables people to understand the emotions of others. The enhanced ability of stressed women to read faces and empathize could underlie the propensity to bond under trying circumstances, which may have evolved as a way to protect offspring.