Wednesday, 20 June 2012


Time for me to step forwards with my hands in the air, I have a confession to make and it’s a pretty big one.

That’s right. I fell for it. I categorically stated ‘’…male testosterone levels can contribute to aggression. Yes, this is true.’’ And then I researched the topic myself.

We really do take this one as given, don’t we? I certainly did. Even in a blog about the misconceptions surrounding gender equality, where I’m trying to look at everything objectively, I read something in the newspaper, or a book, or maybe I heard it on TV… And I believed it.

I’ve spent the last two days trawling through scientific experiments. I’ve discovered that not only are the experiments that fit in with our current stereotypical beliefs favoured by the media, but it is these experiments, regardless of their scientific validity, that are in fact chosen for publishing over hundreds and hundreds of experiments that don’t ‘prove’ whatever it is we want to hear. These unpublished experiments will no doubt remain in the filing cabinets of Professors for years and years…

But I digress. What I wanted to tell you was this: the only experiment to directly correlate testosterone with aggression was an experiment carried out on rats.* Rats! Can you believe it? We have based one of our fundamental beliefs about humanity on an experiment carried out on rodents!

That’s not to say that we’ve never tried to relate testosterone with aggression in humans. There are scientific experiments that fall on both sides of the debate. So many on both sides that, if there is one conclusion we can draw from this, it is that there is no scientific consensus. It is a complete mystery to us. Something that we can see so clearly in rats, does not translate to the complexities of what is happening in humans, and this leads me on to another interesting experiment:

R. Tricker, ‘The Effects of Supraphysiological Doses of Testosterone on Anger Behaviour in Healthy Eugonadal Men’ - Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, and Metabolism, 81 (1996)

This is an experiment which was carried out in 2 stages. The first stage involved giving 43 healthy men either a high dose of testosterone or a placebo for ten weeks. It was a double-blind experiment, which means neither the administrators nor the subjects knew who was receiving the real drug.
Self-reports showed that those receiving the testosterone, but did not know it, did not experienced increased anger, or aggressive moods/behaviour. Furthermore, observers reports, including parents and spouses, suggested no changes in these areas either.

The second stage of the study involved giving the men a placebo and having them believe it was testosterone. In the self-reports, these men did describe greater anger, irritation and impulsivity. The observer reports endorsed this.

From these results, we can see that when we talk about so-called ‘masculine’ behaviour, i.e. aggression, we may not be talking about testosterone at all. It seems obvious from this experiment, and others like it, that our social expectations play a great role in how we subconsciously conform to our stereotypes. Expectations of ourselves can have a genuine impact on our behaviour, on our hormones and on our brain. As far as I’m aware, rats don’t have the same expectations affecting their brain patterns.

I was going to write up my brief study into oestrogen and oxytocin; the hormones we commonly associate with ‘female’ qualities, but it seems of little use repeating myself. When I looked into the wealth of scientific studies regarding these hormones, I found the same thing here as I did with testosterone. There is no scientific consensus. The media presents oxytocin as this wonderful happy, happy, happy hormone, but there are a lot of scientific experiments linking it to raised stress levels instead. Rather than explaining how women are so gloriously empathetic, oxytocin levels were higher in women suffering from chronic stress**. Another study looking at oxytocin levels in kissing couples, discovered that when kissing, the levels increased in men but decreased in women*** - another counter-intuitive experiment that went unheard.

* A Bartke, R E Steele, N Musto and B V Caldwell 'Fluctuations in Plasma Testosterone Levels in Adult Male Rats and Mice' Endocrinology, 92, 4 (1973)
** S E Taylor, G Gonzaga, L C Klein, P Hu, G A Greendale and T E Seeman ‘Relation of Oxytocin to Psychological Stress Responses and Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical Axis Activity in Older Women’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 68 (2006)
*** R A Turner, M Altemus, T Enos, B Cooper, B McGuinness, ‘Preliminary Research on Plasma Oxytocin in Normal Cycling Women: Investigating Emotion and Interpersonal Distress’ Psychiatry, 62, 2 (1999)

NB: Don't hesititate to contact me at: if you want to hear more about oestrogen, or if you would like any further detail about my sources.

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