Individuals vary in the way in which they cope with stressful situations. It has been suggested that ‘active’ coping behaviour, characterised by aggression and territorial control, is more effective in moderating the stress associated with social defeat than ‘passive’ coping behaviour, as characterised by immobility, decreased reactivity, and low aggression. We used the rodent ‘resident/intruder’ paradigm to determine whether individual differences in coping behaviour modulate the acute adrenocortical response to social defeat. During the 10 min conflict episode, behaviours displayed by the intruder were recorded and subsequently scored. Intruders that engaged in large numbers of fights and/or frequently used physical structures to block the resident's approach (a behaviour referred to as ‘guarding’), displayed smaller corticosterone responses to defeat than other intruders. Corticosterone responses to defeat were unrelated to a measure of coping style preferences (defensive burying test) obtained prior to the defeat encounter. We further chose to investigate the neurobiological basis of this observation by comparing the patterns of defeat-induced neuronal activation in the forebrains of intruders that displayed high versus low numbers of defensive behaviours during the defeat episode. The results of this analysis indicated that ‘low fight’ and ‘low guard’ intruders, i.e. those that achieved a fight or a guard score below the 20th percentile, had significantly higher numbers of Fos-positive neurons in forebrain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala than did control animals exposed to an empty resident's cage. In summary, the present data suggest that ‘active’ coping behaviour is associated with both a smaller adrenocortical response and a lower level of ‘neural activation’ following social defeat. This outcome differs from that of earlier studies, a difference that we suggest is due to the fact that the present study is the first to assess coping on the basis of behaviour actually displayed during the conflict interaction.