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My fault, your fault, default?


My fault, your fault, default?

October 03, 2023

In his short story in a recent issue of New Yorker, Julian Barnes captures the subtle shifts of attention and the nuances of emotion that transform two strangers into lovers.  At one point in the narrative he writes, “We went to a film together.  I had as yet no clear sense of her temperament and habits.  Whether she was punctual or unpunctual, easygoing or quick-tempered, tolerant or severe, cheerful of depressive, sane or mad …. What I mean is, I was still working out the default setting of her character” (3).

The default setting of her character – a lovely phrase, certainly, and one that captures the promise of initial feelings of attraction and the challenges that lie in wait.  Who is your partner, really?  And why does he or she do the things he or she does?  How much control do any of us have over our own default settings, our tendencies to react, our moods?  In one of my studies, I was surprised to learn that “tempers and moods” was the leading topic of discussion and debate, for men and women alike, in a large sample of newlywed couples.  Discerning our own emotional state, and that of our partner, and knowing how to respond accordingly – empathy, you might call it — are crucial tasks for all of us as we strive to negotiate the minefields of intimacy.  Having a perspective on where these emotions come from is pivotal for real harmony and for smooth coordination of our actions and those of our mate.  Should you fault your partner for his or her moods, or should we look for the defaults?

A provocative recent study sheds light on likely sources of emotional upset.  Conducted by Dr. Nina Alexander and her colleagues (2009) at the University of Giessen in Germany, this study asked 100 healthy men to give impromptu speeches in front of a small audience.  To provide an objective measure of bodily stress, these researchers asked the men to provide saliva samples twice before the speech and four times after it, thereby sampling 100 minutes of stress response from start to finish.  Cortisol levels can be reliably measured in saliva samples, and these levels give a pretty good idea of how much one’s body – the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, to be specific — is mobilizing the “fight or flight” response.

Giving a speech like this is probably like being called in to see your boss, getting cut off in traffic, or listening to voicemail from your child’s school for problems that are not specified — a manageable demand for most of us, but aversive and stressful nonetheless.  The key idea is that different people vary in how they respond to these kinds of events and in how they recover.  So who responds the most?

In this particular study, one version of a gene was found to predict elevated cortisol response in the 25 minutes after completion of the speech.  Most people began to get back to their baseline after the stress, but people who have this unique genetic vulnerability actually increase in their cortisol response dramatically during and especially after the speech, before eventually returning to baseline.  This gene appears to govern the flow of serotonin in our synapses which, in turn, can be reflected in how much we respond to challenges that the environment sends our way – like a unexpected request to give an off-the-cuff speech to a group of strangers, or a reminder from one’s partner that the tax forms are due, tomorrow.

So the simple punch line here is that our bodily response to an ordinary stressful event is governed, at least in part, by our genes.  Who we are as emotional creatures is a function – again, at least in part – of our biological make-up.

But this study gives us two more reasons to let our partner off the hook the next time they seem to be churned up by something.  First, it was the combination of this serotonin allele and stressful life events that predicted how much cortisol people released in response to the speech:  cortisol jumped up the highest for those men with this risky allele AND a history of many stressful life events.  These are major catastrophic life events, along the lines of combat experience, being sexually assaulted, or witnessing a natural disaster. People with the exact same allele but relatively few of these stressful life events were just like the people with the gene variant that is not so risky.  So the roots of our biological responses to stress run deep, and the traces of terrible experiences in life are recorded somewhere in our nervous systems.

The second finding that raised my eyebrows is this.  When the research team swapped out the cortisol measure but looked instead at how much the participants reported feeling upset, nervous, or stressed, there were no differences among the groups having the various combinations of genes and life experiences.  Differences that were detected by the cortisol in saliva could not be detected by how these men reported feeling.

This might mean that men were not particularly good at reporting these emotions, or that the questionnaires were not particularly sensitive, but one could just as easily imagine these results going the other way:  results only on the reported experiences but not in the cortisol response.  But this did not happen, with the implication being that, even in the face of a clear and discrete source of stress like this speech, there can be a disconnect between what is happening in our body (the cortisol response) and how we are “feeling.”  Perhaps we are less like the tuned in and insightful people that we would like to believe, and more like icebergs, where most of what matters is hidden and inaccessible below the surface.

We live stressful lives, that much is clear.  Less obvious is the fact that genetically-set default settings, and long-forgotten traumas, come on-line when we confront mundane challenges.   Recognizing the roots of the forces that operate within our bodies, and within the nervous systems of our partners, should remind us of the power of compassion and the profound need we all have to appreciate and embrace our partner’s default settings.  Perhaps future studies will show that these same default settings render us particularly sensitive to love and affection.


Alexander, N., Kuepper, Y., Schmitz, A., Osinsky, R., Kozyra, E., & Hennig, J. (2009). Gene-environment interactions predict cortisol responses after acute stress: Implications for the etiology of depression. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34, 1294-1303.

Barnes, J. (2009, October 19).  Complicity.  The New Yorker.

Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D. Bio

Dr. Bradbury studies how intimate relationships develop and change.

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