Laboratory research indicates that the presence of a supportive other can reduce physiological responses to a stressor. Whether there are gender differences, either on the part of the provider or the recipient, in this social support effect is explored. Such differences might shed some light on the frequent epidemiological reports of gender differences in social support and health.
Male and female subjects gave an impromptu speech and received either standardized supportive or nonsupportive feedback from a male or female confederate. Blood pressure and heart rate were monitored continuously during baseline and speech periods.
Speakers with a supportive female audience showed a systolic increase of 25 mm Hg over baseline. Those with a nonsupportive female audience increased 36 mm Hg. A supportive male audience led to increases of 32 mm Hg, and a nonsupportive male audience 28 mm Hg. There was no significant effect of gender of subject.
Results indicate that social support provided by women reduced cardiovascular changes for both male and female speakers compared with presence of a nonsupportive female audience. Social support from men did not. These findings suggest a possible mechanism that might help explain the epidemiological literature on the relationship between gender, social support, and health. The findings are consistent with the notion that married men are healthier because they marry women. Women do not profit as much from marriage or suffer as much from separation, in terms of health outcomes, because the support they gain or lose is the less effective support of a man. These findings render more plausible the possibility that differences in social support might contribute to health differences, through the dampening of cardiovascular responses to stress.