Testosterone (Background)

Date: 2006-Mar-25
Author: Mike Orr <sluggoster@gmail.com>

Testosterone (T) tells the body to build muscle. It does a lot of other things too: it encourages risk-taking, aggression (meaning all forms of assertiveness good and bad, not just violence), competitiveness, a deep voice, a square jaw, a "mean" facial expression, horniness, fat around the stomach, hairiness, etc. James and Mary Dabbs did a fascinating study of thousands of men and women, comparing their T level to their behavior, appearance, attitude, and self-perception, in order to determine how valid the stereotypes are. The results are in their book Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior. They found the stereotypes are pretty much true, although only experienced researchers can accurately predict an individual's T level. But they also found T doesn't fully determine one's behavior: social or psychological factors can diminish or even reverse it. A low-T person can imitate the behaviors of high-T people and successfully pass as one of them, and vice-versa. One of the paradoxes is that a low-T person who works out hard can like a high-T person, yet it's T itself which causes that desire. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

T makes guys want to fight or compete. He prepares, this increases T, he shouts oaths and threats, this increases T, they fight, this increases T, he wins, this increases T, then it reaches his brain and makes him start thinking about where he wants to ram his jackhammer, he sticks it in his (girlfriend | boyfriend | whoever is available), this increases T coz it's another score. So T, fighting, sex, and aggression are symbiotically related: each increases the others. But if he loses the fight, T goes down, he doesn't want to face his girlfriend, she's less interested anyway, this decreases T more, he doesn't want to prepare for another fight yet, and down T spirals until something reverses it. Of course it's not quite that simple. Different people react to things in different ways, situations are different, and T goes up and down throughout the day anyway.

One factor Dabbs doesn't address is that T, anger, and adrenaline are interrelated. All three cause aggressive/assertive behavior, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between them. I'd like to see some research on this and how the three interact.

T's main effect is, it encourages people to take risks without thinking of the consequences. A "fear killer", so to speak. Ancient men "who fought and hunted in dangerous primitive environments needed to focus on the task at hand and move quickly with confidence and optimism. They could not afford to worry about the bad things that might happen to them." (Dabbs, ch 3, p 42) Women in contrast had to manage social relations and keep their eye on several things at once. Men have more T than E; women have more E than T: it's the balance between them that maintains these characteristics. The fact that some men are are more aggressive than others makes no difference: the difference can be seen in those who take the opposite-sex hormone in preparation for a sex-change operation. Guys who take steroids for bodybuilding merely accentuate tendencies they already have, but those who take the opposite-sex hormone (E for men, T for women) find dramatic changes. One female-to-male reported, "I stumble over words. Your use of language becomes more direct and concise. I think less; I act faster, without thinking. I can't make fine hand movements anymore; I let things fall out of my hands. The visual is so strong. I would have preferred to remain androgynous. I always considered myself to be a man, but this is not what I had expected." (Dabbs, ch 3, pp 41-42) Dabbs says that's the tradeoff between strength and dexterity, between focus and seeing the big picture.

Of course, most of the dramatic-ness is in our perception. We're used to male/female characteristics being fixed, and it's alarming that they can be so pliable with just a hormone. I had a hermaphrodite friend (male but with one testacle and one ovary, thus with very low T and significant feminine characteristics), and it forced me to think about this. I'm still "proud to be male, proud to be aggressive" because I think it's better to cooperate with your evolutionary hardwiring than to struggle against it (which means struggling against yourself), yet I recognize that the characteristics are pliable and thus somewhat arbitrary. My friend also felt the same way: he was up front about his condition (as if challenging you to reject him, so he could find out who his real friends were), and he learned grappling so he wouldn't have to take shit from anybody.

One thing T does not affect is sexuality. Studies have tried to find a difference in T level between gay men and straight men but have consistently failed. (Dabbs, ch 5, p 121) This may sound surprising since there certainly seem to be a lot of non-athletic, non-assertive gay men around, but the reasons are related to social/psychological factors rather than T. (I think the reasons are repressed anger, but that's another topic.)

High-T men tend to have a mean facial expression because they like to dominate and assume they can; a frown is halfway toward a snarl. Domination here can mean a gentle sort ("take charge of the situation and manage it") or a harsh sort (anger problems, humiliation, sadism, etc). Low-T men tend to smile because they know they can't mess with high-T men, so they have to make them a friend to neutralize the threat. Low-T people do not want to confront things; they avoid risks instead. This is not necessarily inferior, otherwise low-T genes would have died out centuries ago. Men's T level is also regulated by women, who choose which guys they want to have sex with. Some like high-T construction workers, but most like moderate-T guys who are more reliable, less abusive toward women, and live longer. (However, this society has gone overboard in that direction. I'd argue that the 1940s-50s were more ideal in this regard, when men were allowed to be men.)

Dabbs ends the book talking about how T has become problematic now that the population is so large, people live in urban societies, and weapons have become so efficient. Cultures have evolved to channel it to socially-productive ends (more or less); e.g., initiation ceremonies to satisfy the tribal instinct. "Beyond the words we use do describe it, testosterone is part of the animal kingdom with in us, and it has its own reality, following its own ancient rules worked out before words existed. It is a part of the natural world, acting on and being acted on by the other parts in complicated ways we only partly understand." (Dabbs, Epilogue, p 215)