Sex differences in cortisol's regulation of affiliative behavior

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A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition.

A stress perspective is used to illuminate how competitive defeat and victory shape biology and behavior. We report a field study examining how change in cortisol following perceived defeat (vs. victory) in a competition—in this case, a dog agility competition—relates to affiliative behavior. Following competition, we measured cortisol change and the extent to which dog handlers directed affiliative behaviors toward their dogs. We found striking sex differences in affiliation. First, men were more affiliative toward their dogs after victory, whereas women were more affiliative after defeat. Second, the greater a female competitor's increase in cortisol, the more time she spent affiliating with her dog, whereas for men, the pattern was the exact opposite: the greater a male competitor's increase in cortisol, the less time he spent affiliating with his dog. This pattern suggests that, in the wake of competition, men and women's affiliative behavior may serve different functions—shared celebration for men; shared consolation for women. These sex differences show not only that men and women react very differently to victory and defeat, but also that equivalent changes in cortisol across the sexes are associated with strikingly different behavioral consequences for men and women.

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