Attend or defend? Sex differences in behavioral, autonomic, and respiratory response patterns to emotion–eliciting films

Frank H. Wilhelm*, Julina A. Rattel, Melanie Wegerer, Michael Liedlgruber, Simon Schweighofer, Sylvia D. Kreibig, Vitaliy Kolodyazhniy, Jens Blechert

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Sex differences in emotional reactivity have been studied primarily for negative but less so for positive stimuli; likewise, sex differences in the psychophysiological response-patterning during such stimuli are poorly understood. Thus, the present study examined sex differences in response to negative/positive and high/low arousing films (classified as threat-, loss-, achievement-, and recreation-related, vs. neutral films), while measuring 18 muscular, autonomic, and respiratory parameters. Sex differences emerged for all films, but were most prominent for threat-related films: Despite equivalent valence and arousal ratings, women displayed more facial-muscular and respiratory responding than men and pronounced sympathetic activation (preejection period, other cardiovascular and electrodermal measures), while men showed coactivated sympathetic/parasympathetic responding (including increased respiratory sinus arrhythmia). This indicates a prototypical threat-related defense response in women, while men showed a pattern of sustained orienting, which can be understood as a shift toward less threat proximity in the defense cascade model. Clinical implications are discussed within a socio-evolutionary framework.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-40
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Affective neuroscience
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Circumplex model
  • Defense cascade
  • Electrodermal system
  • Emotion
  • Fear
  • Gender differences
  • Heart rate variability
  • Impedance cardiography
  • Mental stress
  • Parasympathetic nervous system
  • Pre-ejection period
  • Psychophysiology
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia
  • Sadness
  • Sympathetic nervous system

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