Men and Status: How Testosterone Fuels the Drive for Status
18, September 18, 2017 - Filed in: General Interest
The following is a reprint of an article by Brett McKay that appears in the Art of Manliness web site.
Welcome back to our series on male status. This series aims to help men understand the way status affects our behaviour, and even physiology, so we can mitigate its ill effects, harness its positive ones, and generally get a handle on how best to manage its place in our lives.
In the last post, we discussed the way in which a desire for status is hardwired into our neurology, and how losing and gaining status affects the brain.
But status is not only woven into our brains; it’s also tied into our bodies. And the main driver behind the physiology of status is testosterone. Exactly how this hormone impacts our desire to gain and hold on to status is what we’ll delve into today.
Testosterone: The Fuel for Status Drive
The popular conception of testosterone is that it makes men aggressive and domineering jerks. This is probably because of the association between testosterone, steroids, and “roid rage.” But the anger and aggression that can be caused by steroid use isn’t usually due to an overabundance of T, but too little of it. The use of artificial testosterone can lead to a drop in the production of natural testosterone, so that if a user misses a dose, he can’t make his own. The low T levels that result are what can cause men to lash out; remember, it’s low T men who are most prone to showy displays of aggression.
Men with high T are in fact often very friendly and cooperative. As we discussed last time, true alpha males frequently exhibit these traits, and that’s not a coincidence. In fact, several studies have shown that when men (and women, too) are injected with testosterone, they become much more cooperative and altruistic in games that require cooperation and altruism than folks who didn’t receive the T injections.
That may seem counterintuitive, so let’s dig into why that would be by first reviewing some of the principles of status we’ve discussed thus far.
First, instead of thinking of testosterone as a fuel for aggression, it’s better to think of it as a fuel for dominance. Most folks equate aggression with dominance, which makes sense. If you look in a thesaurus, “dominant” and “aggressive” are listed as synonyms. But in the world of animal science and sociology, they’re two different things. For scientists and researchers, dominance is synonymous with status. Aggression, then, is simply a means — one option among several — for an animal or human to gain dominance/status.
Primatologists and sociologists have observed different dominance “styles” in both chimps and humans. For example, one way in which chimps (particularly smaller chimps) gain dominance/status in a group is through grooming other chimps. In so doing, a would-be alpha male gains the support of his male coalition. Human males can also display dominance in ways that don’t require aggression. Men who are adept networkers or who have a skill or area of knowledge that’s beneficial to their group can achieve dominance without crushing their enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women. For example, a guy like Elon Musk has very high status, even though he doesn’t look like the strongest dude out there.
Whether a chimp or a human will use a more aggressive, violent approach or a more cooperative, non-violent way to gain status depends on many factors — from culture, to the circumstances of the situation, to the male’s own strengths and weaknesses. Male chimps that are large and strong are apt to try to muscle their way to the top, while chimps that lack physical prowess will attempt to groom their way to greater status. For humans, the chosen approach will often depend on the particular social environment. If you’re in jail in Juarez, Mexico, you better be willing to shank a man if you want to avoid being on the bottom of the social hierarchy. If you work in a corporate office, being a team player is a better way up the ladder.
Yet no matter which approach you take towards dominance — aggressive or non-aggressive — testosterone will fuel the behaviour.
Testosterone as Motivation for Risk and Competition
Research has shown that right before high-profile chess matches, grandmasters will have a spike in their testosterone levels. Other studies have found surgeons will experience a 500% increase in their T right before demanding operations. Similar rises in blood testosterone levels have been observed in football players immediately before a game, and even in folks about to lead their pooches through a dog competition. Thus, no matter the arena, nor whether the challenge is physical or mental, testosterone spurs us to strive to be the best. It does this partly by revving up the dopamine in our brains, which motivates us to seek rewards.
Testosterone also nudges us to seek status by reducing fear and increasing our tolerance for risk. It takes some chutzpah to put yourself out there and try to gain dominance. There’s a good chance your efforts will result in abject failure, or simply be fruitless, and that you’ll end up lowering instead of raising your status. So there’s an element of risk whenever you try to climb any kind of hierarchy — the degree of which differs from situation to situation. A joke at a party you told in the hope of ingratiating yourself carries the chance of bombing, which, while it may be embarrassing, won’t dramatically affect your well-being. Your decision to quit your job and start a company even better than the one you left, however, carries with it the risk of failure, professional embarrassment, and financial ruin.
Testosterone’s status-seeking effect doesn’t stop once we’ve put our foot on the first rung of the ladder, either. Whenever we win (or perceive that others think highly of us), our body reinforces the drive for status by giving us another testosterone boost. Research has shown that when people win competitions that are important to their sense of self, testosterone levels surge; if they lose, their testosterone levels decrease and cortisol levels increase (more on cortisol in a bit). Heck, just watching your favorite sports team win will result in higher T levels; watching them lose, however, lowers your testosterone (Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Phillies fans, you might want to get some testosterone gel from your doctor).
This follow-up dose of T received by victors makes them hungry for more action and eager to jump back into the arena. In studies looking at how winning and losing can affect testosterone levels, researchers found the winners were gung-ho to compete again. Losers, on the other hand, whose T levels had dropped from the defeat, were more likely to opt-out of participating in another competition.
These fluctuations in testosterone only occur whenever the status competition is relevant to a person’s sense of self. If professional football is superfluous to you, then your T levels won’t be affected by whether your hometown team wins or loses the Super Bowl. But if money is important to you, and you put some cash on that game, your testosterone levels will rise heading into the “competition,” but fall if your team loses. Even achieving success in situations that we don’t think of as real contests can impact your T; slaying your friends with jokes or nailing a presentation will level up you testosterone, making you feel awesome and ready to take on the world.
The fact that you only get a rise/drop in T in relation to status pursuits you care about also means that your higher thinking functions can exercise some control over this physiological/neurological response. For example, if you’re going after a girl you really want, and she keeps rejecting you or failing to reciprocate signs of interest, and making you feel miserable, at a certain point you can decide you’re over it altogether, or are simply going to drop your expectations for how things are going to go with her. Really becoming aloof to how she treats you might take some time and cognitive work, but eventually her behaviour will fail to trigger a reaction in you.
Cortisol: The Hormone of Status Defeat
So testosterone levels increase as we’re about to take on a challenge that may affect our status in a big way, surge even more whenever we come out on top, but drop when we lose.
Yet not only do our T levels fall when we experience status defeat, our cortisol (the stress hormone) rises at the same time.
This one-two punch of decreasing testosterone and increasing cortisol blunts the status drive. Scientists believe humans, as well as other animals, evolved this response as a survival mechanism. If an animal gets beaten in a status competition, it won’t do him any good to keep fighting over and over just to get squashed again and again. Better to just retreat to his cave, lick his wounds, and live to fight another day. What’s interesting is while the cortisol response to status defeat occurs in both men and women, it’s much stronger in men, particularly when the status is achievement related. We’ll discuss why that is in a later article in this series about the evolution of status.
Besides playing a role in the aftermath of status competitions, recent research has discovered that cortisol also affects performance before the status competition even starts. In studies performed on people about to engage in a competitive game, the individuals with elevated cortisol levels beforehand performed worse than the individuals who had lower cortisol levels.
And cortisol’s choke-inducing propensity doesn’t just happen in direct competitions. In any interaction where status is on the line, elevated cortisol levels will get in the way of you doing your best. Take small talk at a party. You might not think of it as a status competition, but when we make idle chit-chat with strangers, we’re signalling to others our status through things like how we look, our level of confidence, and our adroitness at conversation. As we saw in our series about shyness, stress and anxiety before social interactions increases people’s self-consciousness, which in turn makes them fumble over words or clam up and consequently feel like a dope. Taking measures to reduce cortisol levels — and thus your feelings of stress — before social interactions or any high-stakes competition can help you display high status as well as give your best performance.
Testosterone as Radar for Status Threats
Once both primates and people make it to the top of a social hierarchy the tendency is for them to try to stay on top for as long as possible. Everyone wants to keep the hits of T, dopamine, and serotonin coming, and avoid the misery that results when these feel-good, charged-up neurotransmitters and hormones plummet. Status maintenance involves not only continuing to engage in behaviours that demonstrate value, but also watching for threats that may lower one’s status and usurp one’s position.
As mentioned last time, researchers studying primate behaviour have found that alpha chimps tend to be a little high-strung because they’re constantly on the lookout for would-be pretenders to their throne. Testosterone appears to be the source of this monitoring behaviour, and the same hyper-vigilance manifests itself among alpha humans as well.
Researchers have found that when both men and women are injected with testosterone, they become much more attentive to angry faces. The thinking is that someone with an angry face constitutes a possible status threat (he might be gunning for your position), so it pays to be extra attentive to a scowling countenance, and the potentially nefarious intentions lurking behind it.
Differences, however, were observed in how men and women responded to the angry faces. Women injected with testosterone were more attentive to angry faces in both men and women, while men injected with T were only more attentive to angry faces from other men. From an evolutionary standpoint this behaviour makes sense. When it comes to status, men are more concerned about how they rank among other men; the judgment of women just wasn’t a status threat for primordial males. For women, on the other had, being attentive to the angry faces of both sexes allowed them to 1) be aware of social status threats from other women, and 2) be aware of possible physical threats from men.
The other difference between how men and women injected with T responded to angry faces is that while the women were more likely to divert their gaze after recognizing an angry face, the men were more likely to stare down the scowler. Basically, men will try to assert dominance by meeting a signal of possible aggression with one of their own.
While status threat monitoring can be useful for maintaining one’s position, it can also heighten into a debilitating paranoia. You see this among celebrities, CEOs, and even heads of giant churches. They want to hold on to their position at the top and they start worrying that outside competitors are trying to overtake them and that inside friends and associates want to usurp them; they find it hard to trust anyone. These anxious alphas thus clamp down on anyone questioning their authority and withdraw from their many perceived threats. But this isolation only makes them more paranoid and desperate to control their environment and everyone in it. As a result, their fears become a self-fulfilling prophesy; with all their energy going towards warding off possible status threats, instead of creating the kind of value-building qualities and behaviours necessary to maintain and grow their status, they ultimately self-destruct.
Testosterone rises before any situation in which we stand to lose or gain status. This boost in T gets us motivated to do our best, and dampens feelings of fear and stress. If we lose the ensuing contest or perform poorly in a social situation, testosterone, as well as dopamine and serotonin, drop, and we retreat, lick our wounds, and wait for the miserable feeling of status defeat to abate. But if we win and perform deftly, we’re hit with another dose of T, which makes us hungry to engage in more contests and seize more opportunities to demonstrate our mental, physical, or social prowess. Then, once we’re on top, we want to stay there, and become attuned to possible threats to our position.
The fact that men, on average, have more testosterone than women partly explains why males are more sensitive to status and more tolerant to the risks involved in seeking it than females. But there’s more to the story than that. Human evolution also has much to tell us about why men are so focused on status, and why the status response is so ingrained in both our physiology and neurology in the first place. We’ll pick up that subject next time.