Testosterone and Politics

TESTOSTERONE AND AGGRESSION – AND THE LINK TO SEXUAL SCANDALS – A brief summary of the literature by my friend, Professor Jean Elson, Ph.D.

I asked her about the research regarding testosterone and alpha-males – in regard to all the news in the last decades about politicians, for example, as men in positions of power and their scandals with women – Clinton, Spitzer, Gingrich, Giuliani, Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. Gary Hart, Pres. Kennedy, the list goes on…  It seemed to me as a biologist that testosterone levels in these men might explain (not excuse) their behavior as it is almost a cliché in our society – the old story of the boss chasing his secretary around the desk is almost enshrined in the mid-20th century psyche.  While we used to believe that the male with the highest level of testosterone achieved the alpha-male status, that is in fact not the case, as shown by the research – the levels actually RISE AFTER WINNING!

So here is the email on the subject from Dr. Elson:

Kemper, Theodore. 1990. Testosterone and Social Structure. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U. Press

Kling, Arthur. 1975. “Testosterone and Aggressive Behavior in Man and Non-human Primates,” In Hormonal Correlates of Behavior, B. Eleftheriou and R. Sprott, eds. New York: Plenum.

Theodore Kemper notes several studies in which testosterone levels were linked to (human) men’s social experiences. The studies included tennis players, medical students, wrestlers, nautical competitors (?), parachutists, and officer candidates. In all cases, winning and losing determined the men’s levels of testosterone. The levels of winners rose dramatically, while those of the losers dropped or remained the same. Kemper suggests that testosterone levels vary depending upon men’s experiences of either dominance (“elevated social rank that is achieved by overcoming others in a competitive confrontation”) or eminence (“elevated social rank that is earned through socially valued and approved accomplishment”– I use Donald Trump as an example). Men’s prior levels of testosterone before either dominance or eminence could not predict the outcome– it was the experience of rising status due to success that led to the elevation of the testosterone level.

Here’s a cite (annotated) claiming that testosterone creates a “permissive effect,” rather than directly causing aggression:

Sapolsky, Robert. 1997. The Trouble with Testosterone. New York: Simon and Schuster, p.155.

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford neurobiologist who criticizes the leaps of logic that other scientists make regarding testosterone as the direct cause of aggression. Experimenters took 5 male monkeys and arranged them in a dominance hierarchy from one to five, with the #1 monkey having the highest testosterone level, and levels decreasing down the line. Monkey #3 would pick fights with #4 and #5, but will avoid and run away from numbers #1 and #2. HOWEVER: When they gave Monkey #3 a massive dose of testosterone, he would become more aggressive– but ONLY toward Monkeys #4 and #5. Monkey #3 would still avoid Monkey #1 and #2. This has been used to prove that testosterone has a permissive effect on aggression– it doesn’t cause it, but it does facilitate and enable the aggression that is already there.

If you are interested in a really good critique of hormones from a biologist, fire up your Kindle and read the work of Anne Fausto- Sterling, who I read in grad. school, used in my dissertation and book, and used at UNH with grad. students. Myths of Gender and Gender Trouble are really good– I have the hard copies if you want to wait. Fausto-Sterling writes a bit densely, but I know that you are up to it. I met her when I was working at Harvard.

As I mentioned in my previous email, I have known about and have been teaching about this topic for many years (are you sure you didn’t hear about this from me?). This is one of the points that my students most remember. Another point is most remembered by women students in particular: During the supposed PMS period women’s hormones are most similar to men’s hormones all of the time.

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  • […] do I start? – Been away too long!! Another case proves the point I made in March about testosterone levels and power!  The IMF chief, who is innocent until proven guilty, probably imploded his life the way many […]

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