“Testosterone is a rare poison.” – Germaine Greer
Do Sex Hormones Determine Our Thoughts?
Let’s talk about hormones.
I have just come up with a theory. But before I present it, you should know this:
It’s well established that testosterone is the primary hormone that generates the emotions that have been traditionally described as masculine: confidence, competitiveness, aggressiveness, and even arrogance. Countless studies show that men with higher-than-average testosterone levels tend to exhibit these characteristics regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in and regardless of their chosen careers.
Likewise estrogen, the “female” hormone, generates emotions such as cooperativeness, compassion, and the nurturing instinct.
Both men and women produce testosterone and estrogen. But, typically, the average adult man has about seven to eight times more testosterone than the average adult woman.
Here’s an interesting fact: Testosterone levels change after a win or a loss. They drop during and after a loss and rise during and after a win. But the degree and the duration of change differs with the individual. Some experience a great and longstanding drop or rise. Some experience a change that is less dramatic and enduring. By measuring those changes through blood tests, researchers found they could predict what a competitor would likely do about the next competition. Losers that had large drops in testosterone were less likely to compete again, compared to those that had more moderate and less enduring drops.
Another interesting fact: According to Business Insider, testosterone levels can predict how people in the financial community will fare. Traders and financiers with higher-than-average testosterone levels – both men and women – tend to rise faster and make more money than those with lower-than-average levels.
Studies have shown that CEOs – both men and women – tend to have higher testosterone levels than is typical for their sex. (There’s even a rumor that Wall Street companies search out women with higher-than-average testosterone levels because it means they’re more likely to take on risk.)
In one study, researchers found that “young male” CEOs (younger than 45) were “more likely than older [male or female CEOs] to both initiate and kill M&A deals.” They noted, “Young male CEOs appear to be combative… [as] a result of testosterone levels that are higher in young males. [Average testosterone levels drop significantly as men age.] Testosterone… has been shown to inﬂuence prospects for a cooperative outcome of the ultimatum game. Speciﬁcally, high-testosterone responders tend to reject low offers even though this is against their interest.”
Some other facts:
* High testosterone levels are common among those that advance in other professions, too, such as politics, the military, and even academia.
* There is evidence that testosterone levels are higher in individuals with aggressive behavior, including prisoners (male and female) that have committed violent crimes.
* Researchers found that men with increased testosterone “were 27% less generous towards strangers with money they controlled.”
Neuroscientists generally agree that emotions and thoughts are not biologically distinct. One affects the other. And both exist in specific areas of our brains that are stimulated by our sex hormones.
So my theory is this: Testosterone and estrogen affect the way we think and the sort of thoughts and ideas we prefer.
My fellow book club members and I were having a discussion about the sort of books we like to read in our club as compared to the books that our wives like to read in their clubs. There is an obvious difference. Our wives prefer to read fiction, and they read only fiction in their clubs. We read half fiction and half non-fiction, though a good third of us read the fiction selections grudgingly.
On those occasions when we and our wives have read the same books (fiction), we preferred the darker novels like Heart of Darkness and No Country for Old Men, whereas the women preferred novels like Vanity Fair and The Goldfinch.
When it comes to genre fiction, the women preferred historical fiction like Wolf Hall, whereas we preferred crime stories like The Killer Inside Me.
Of course there are exceptions and degrees. Within our group, there was a stark divide between those that liked Where the Crawdads Sing and those that abhorred it. Those that liked it were generally more accepting of literary conventions. Those that disliked it saw it as a thinly disguised romance novel.
I was thinking of the people that write for my publishing companies, and I could see a difference there, too. The male writers tend to be more contrarian and confrontational when they write advocacy pieces, and they gravitate to subjects like economics and investing, where conflicting opinions are common. The women tend to be more compassionate and consensus seeking in their writing, and they gravitate towards subjects like travel and natural health, where the emotional content is less volatile.
Again, there are exceptions.
But it does seem that an imbalance in the testosterone/estrogen ratio in favor of testosterone stirs up contrarian, unconventional, even strident, trains of thought and a preference for non-fiction writing that emphasizes such thinking. And an imbalance in the other direction stimulates ideas that are more conducive to consensus and a preference for non-fiction writing that is more accepting of conventional norms – even if those conventions are presented as radical or revolutionary.
I’m generalizing, of course. Some of the best women non-fiction writers I know are contrarian thinkers. And some of the most successful male writers I know advocate ideas that are mainstream and conventional.
But does that refute my theory or support it?
I remember reading a book by Deborah Tannen, a linguist, about the way men and women talk about their experiences. According to Tannen (based on a bunch of studies she did), men tend to present their experiences as examples of how well they fare in competition. Women tend to present them as opportunities for bonding.
One chapter of the book looked at the way husbands and wives talked about vacations they had taken together. The men overwhelmingly reported them as successful, whereas the women told stories about problems they’d encountered. Tannen theorized that the reason for this discrepancy was that, for men, any admission of problems with a vacation they had spent time and money on was tantamount to admitting failure. For women, it was a way to evoke sympathy.
I’m sounding terribly misogynistic, so I should probably drop this theory right now. But I’ll end with a question…
Since we know that the sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen) have a proven effect on emotions, and we know that emotions are inextricably connected with our preferences in many areas (career choices, leisure activities, etc.), why wouldn’t these same hormones also affect the way we think – our preference for certain kinds of ideas?
But before you answer that… have your bloodwork done and compare your hormone levels to the averages.
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