Tag Archives: aggression

Testosterone And Government

Okay, today’s post is a bit “off the wall,” so indulge me…

 I was fascinated to read the results of a recent study linking testosterone to aggressive behavior and selfishness. The results confirmed previous research findings  that associated selfishness with testosterone. Evidently, testosterone acts to decrease activity in the brain’s temporoparietal junction, which is a region associated with generosity, and “reduces consideration of the needs and desires of others, which leads to more selfish behaviors.” 

The more testosterone, the greater these effects.

The researchers are careful to note that their findings don’t necessarily suggest testosterone inherently makes people selfish, but that testosterone “reduced concern for the profits of others.”

While this study only looked at healthy, young adult males — and thus may or may not apply to other ages and genders — it does add to the pile of studies suggesting increased testosterone can lead to decreased consideration for the needs of others. What this study also reveals are the neural mechanisms by which that happens.

These results encouraged me to consider a number of (highly speculative) theories.

In early human history, men who produced ample amounts of testosterone were undoubtedly advantaged–their aggressiveness would have paid off in the hunt, and more successful hunters would be advantaged in the competition for the most attractive and fertile women.

Early men were thus socially dominant, and that male dominance continued–undoubtedly assisted by high levels of testosterone that gave business “movers and shakers” an aggressive edge, and contributed to the high status enjoyed by warriors of various types.

Women, of course, were disadvantaged for eons by our fertility; without the ability to control our reproduction, women have been relegated to a homemaking role and hampered in efforts to enter the workforce.

These roles were cemented into society through the various cultural influences that accepted them as givens: religions that preached about women’s submission, social mores that stressed expected aspects of femininity and masculinity.

That all began to change with the invention of reliable birth control and the development of economies that no longer rely on workers’ brute strength. When the value of an individual to the workforce depends primarily upon intellect and the ability to work well with others, enhanced aggressiveness and “decreased consideration for the needs of others” are no longer assets.

The metrics by which we evaluate the competence of government are also undergoing change. Those of us who believe that good governance requires compassion and unifying social policies look longingly at the Jacinda Arderns and Angela Merkels of the world, and view blustering bullies like Vladimir Putin, Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump as unfortunate–and dangerous– throwbacks.

Perhaps–on balance– women are better equipped to govern the world we currently inhabit.

That said, these speculations are obviously far too broad-brush. There are plenty of belligerent and selfish women and I encounter increasing numbers of thoughtful, caring men. Furthermore, testosterone is only one small element of nature in the still-hazy relationship between nature and nurture. 

Still, it is interesting to step back and view the arc of history and social change through a biological lens–and to consider whether the development of methods to balance people’s hormones would lead to world peace or, in the alternative, to an unintended dystopia…

Maybe The South Did Rise Again

Culture matters.

There was an intriguing essay by Josh Marshall a few weeks back on Talking Points Memo, addressing America’s regional differences.

Back in the 1990s, psychologists at the University of Michigan conducted a study about regionalism and aggression. As is often the case, the “real” study took place before the participants actually thought it was happening. The participants are all white male college students. They are walking down a hall when an apparent bystander thoughtlessly bumps into him while closing a file cabinet and calls him an “asshole.”

This is the core experiment. Does the study participant react with some version of amused indifference or does he move into an aggressive affront response? The experiment showed that participants from the South were significantly more likely to have the latter, aggressive affront response.

This is not terribly surprising for anyone who has studied American history and perhaps for anyone who’s spent significant time in both parts of the United States. The Southern murder rate has always been substantially higher than any other region in the United States. Indeed, New England and the prairie states have historical rates of murder that aren’t much different from those in Europe. The South is the big outlier and within the South Louisiana and to a lesser extent Mississippi are the big outliers, with murder rates substantially higher than the rest of the South. Even as murder rates have dropped rapidly across the country over the last quarter century the regional differential has remained unchanged.

As Marshall notes, the higher homicide rates in the south tend to be tied to “heat of the moment” incidents– the bar fight that escalates out of control, spousal killings and the like are typically outcomes of anger and escalating aggression rather than more generic criminal activities like burglaries or bank robberies.

What accounts for this difference? Why did the culture of the American South evolve as it apparently did?

Unsurprisingly, the best historical explanations for this trace back to slavery, a system rooted in violence and domination in which the privileges and respect for the sanctity of the body are paramount. In such an honor and status bound society the consequences of one’s status being degraded or questioned are severe and thus they are aggressively defended.

File this observation under “connecting the dots”–the complicated effort to understand the origins of our human cultural and social differences, and the roots of so many seemingly incommensurate attitudes and beliefs.

This is just one more illustration of the multiple ways in which America’s original sin continues to shape personal and regional attitudes and affect contemporary politics, as we are seeing in the responses to this disastrous Presidency.

“Know thyself” continues to be our hardest assignment.