It turns out that dudes who rely on other dudes for support, advice and companionship may be onto something.
A new study from the University of California, Berkley, finds that when men are social with one another, they may be more resilient to stress.
It's true for rats, at least.
The researchers sought to examine how social relationships could influence rodents' ability to handle stress. When male rats roomed together (i.e., they shared a cage) and were exposed to a mild stressor, the researchers found that the animals were more social than they tended to be when in an environment that wasn't stressful.
While research performed on human subjects would be more conclusive, it's worth noting that mice and rats are often used as human stand-ins because of their similar brain make-up and physiology. We suffer from many of the same diseases, and have similar organs and nervous systems.
What we can learn from the findings is that a little stress can actually be crucial to social bonding, and men who experience stress together may be at an advantage for handling it more adeptly.
"We think oxytocin, which is released after stress, is a way of bringing people closer in times of acute stress, which leads to more sharing, bonding and potentially better fear extinction and an increase in cognitive health," said Sandra Muroy, a Berkeley graduate student who launched the research during her undergrad study.
According to co-author Elizabeth Kirby, now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, the kind of stress the rats experienced made a difference in their relationships, helping them to work together cooperatively.
"If you repeatedly take away and return their water, normal rats become very aggressive, pushing and shoving at the water fountain like a bunch of thirsty 7-year-olds who don't know how to stand in line yet," Kirby explained in a statement.
But the rat roommates behaved differently.
"The cagemates who had the mild stressor did not show this behavior at all. After taking away their water and bringing it back, they shared it very evenly and without any pushing and shoving. It was very civil."
The researchers also found that the male rats' levels of oxytocin, the "love hormone" that wards off stress, increased in their brains. The rats also huddled and physically touched more. Aww.
That said, when the mild stressor was replaced with a major, we-might-be-someone's-dinner stressor, the cooperation came to a halt. In a second experiment, the rats were exposed to the smell of fox urine, indicating to them that a predator was nearby. They were less cordial to each other, and their oxytocin levels actually decreased.
In this kind of extreme situation, Kirby said, social bonding ceased between the former rat pals. "You don't see the rodent cuddling, you don't see them showing increased prosocial behaviors," she said.
The researchers say this behavior also mirrors humans, in that it's similar to what happens to people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
"People stop talking to their friends, they stop engaging in their social networks the way they used to," Kirby said.
More research is needed to further explore the importance of male companionship, the authors stressed. Their work will be published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.