When coping with stress, people generally choose between two basic strategies. Some choose what’s called emotion-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping involves doing things that help the person cope with the negative emotions caused by their stress. People will wish the problem were gone, daydream about it turning out differently, re-interpret the problem by “looking on the bright side”, blame others for the problem or just avoid thinking about the problem at all. Other people choose what’s called problem-focused coping. Problem-focused coping involves doing things that actually affect the problem itself. For example, people will think about possible solutions to the problem, gather information about it or take real action to address the problem. How does a person’s gender influence which strategy they pick to cope with their stress? Researchers at the University of Washington and Iowa State University explored this question by exposing male and female participants to the same stressful event.
What was the research about?
A total of 114 participants (53 women & 51 men) participated in the experiment over the course of two days. The participants were told the experiment was trying to use personality characteristics to predict who would be an effective teacher. Participants were instructed they would first complete some personality questionnaires today, and tomorrow they would return to give a 5-minute lecture about the pros and cons of using animals in scientific research. They were also informed their lecture was going to be graded by several research assistants. Immediately after learning about giving the lecture, the participant’s pulse was taken and they filled out a questionnaire measuring how stressful they thought giving the lecture would be.
On the next day the participants returned and, before giving the lecture, they completed a questionnaire that measured the types of thoughts they were having about the lecture and their pulse was taken. After participants gave their lecture they completed questionnaires measuring how they had coped with the event, how many other stressors they were currently experiencing and how well they thought their lecture went.
Results showed that male and female participants had equivalent pulse rates, gave similar ratings of how stressful they thought the lecture would be and had similar thoughts immediately before the lecture. These results indicated that males and females experienced the stressful event (the lecture) in the same way. Even though they had similar reactions to the event, males and females did use different coping strategies to deal with the stress caused by the upcoming lecture. Men reported using more problem-focused coping techniques than women did. Interestingly, men and women reported using a similar degree of emotion-focused coping techniques.
Why should it matter to me?
Coping with stressful problems can be difficult and it’s important to realize and appreciate the different ways people may choose to cope with their problems. This realization can be valuable when men and women must work together to cope with problems, such as a family problem or a problem affecting a group at work.
Source: Ptacek, J. T.; Smith, Ronald E. & Dodge, Kenneth L. (1994). Gender Differences in Coping with Stress: When Stressor & Appraisals Do Not Differ. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. v. 20, pp. 421-430.