Hollywood buddy-comedies, like Superbad and I Love You, Man, make fun of the idea that straight guys can "love" each other. But in real-life circumstances off-screen, these so-called "bromances" may actually be beneficial. Based on a recent animal study, University of California, Berkeley researchers believe that these close male friendships could have the same health benefits as male-female romances.
The study looked at a cage full of male rats to see how bromances stacked up. As lead author Elizabeth Kirby pointed out, males of all species get painted with a broad brush when it comes to friendships.
"Having friends is not un-masculine," she says. "These rats are using their rat friendships to recover from what would otherwise be a negative experience."
Kirby's team saw just how her subjects did this in their study. In times of mild stress -- such as when held captive -- the male rats became more social and worked as a team. While normal rats are hostile when it comes to food or water, the test rats became much more civil and "shared [water] very evenly and without any pushing and shoving," just as humans do when confronted with a community crisis.
The study also found that the rats' oxytocin (OXT) levels increased during times of mild stress. The rats touched and herded closer to one another, much as people feel at ease bonding when their OXT levels increase. When people are social, their brains produce more OXT. Known as the "hormone of love," OXT in turn makes them even more social. And as past studies of humans have shown, it also helps people live longer and cope better with stress.
"But even rats can have a good cuddle -- essentially a male-male bromance -- to help recover from a bad day," says Kirby. "If rats can do it, men can do it too. And they definitely are, they just don't get as much credit in the research for that."
These findings seem to contrast with a noteworthy study from 2000, which found that females tend to befriend others when stressed, while males more often turn to their fight-or-flight response. So perhaps if the male rats in the Cal study weren't caged, they'd turn to their "flight" response, rather than work together.
But according to senior author Daniela Kaufer, Cal associate professor of integrative biology, the study also sheds light on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The team made the captive rats smell fox urine, in order to see how they acted when over-stressed. They believe this scent for rats is equivalent to humans with PTSD who have experienced war, of those being in a car crash.
"If you are a rat and you smell a predator, the likelihood that you are going to get eaten soon is pretty high," said Kirby. As a result of the smell, the rats' OXT levels decreased.
Just as do people with PTSD, the male rats became more hostile and hid in a corner away from their neighbors.
According to study author Sandra Murov, the findings -- much like 2010 autism studies -- support the use of treatments like oxytocin nasal sprays.
OXT -- and bromances -- could bring "people closer in times of acute stress," Murov said, "which leads to more sharing, bonding and potentially better fear extinction and an increase in cognitive health."