What’s Closeness Got to Do with It? Men’s and Women’s Cortisol Responses When Providing and Receiving Support

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Abstract

Objective:

To examine the effects of social support role (i.e., recipient versus provider) and experimentally manipulated closeness on men’s and women’s cortisol responses during an acute stress paradigm.

Methods:

We manipulated psychological closeness (high versus low) between 50 same-sex stranger pairs and subsequently randomly assigned individuals to either prepare a speech (i.e., support recipient) or provide support to the speech presenter (i.e., support provider).

Results:

When receiving support, cortisol responses of men in the high closeness condition increased over time relative to a) men in the low closeness condition and b) women in the high closeness condition. Cortisol responses of female support recipients did not differ as a function of condition. For support providers, whereas both men’s and women’s cortisol declined throughout the procedure, the decline for men was steeper than the decline for women.

Conclusions:

With few exceptions, psychological closeness, sex, and social support role interacted in theoretically consistent ways and each significantly contributed to the pattern of cortisol responses observed in men and women during a standardized acute stress paradigm. This work expands the growing literature on potential mechanisms underlying the social support-health link. Further, the employed methodology highlights the utility of borrowing established paradigms from the close relationships literature to help illuminate specific interpersonal characteristics that might affect social support dynamics in naturally existing relationships and at the same time control for extraneous variables.

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