Caveman Politics

How evolution impacts politics.

Sex (Hormones) and the Elections

Elections are competitions that can affect our biology.

Perusing October’s list of the Top 25 Psychology Today blog posts, I noticed the words “sex” and “love” appear an inordinate number of times. By my count, these two words account for two of the three most frequently mentioned words in the titles of the most popular posts. While I don’t want to strain my credibility by associating politics with love, I can write about politics and sex.

“Sex”…”Sex”…”Sex”…

Testosterone is a hormone that has been associated with sexual desire in both men and women. (Okay, that was the “sex” reference, but don’t stop reading now.) For males in particular, it has been related to the development of the nervous system, augmentation of archetypically male behaviors, and retardation of typically female behaviors. For example, it has been associated with increased aggression, dominance, financial risk taking, hostility, mate seeking, food acquisition, and sensation seeking. 

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Males’ testosterone levels seem especially responsive to challenging and competitive situations. Specifically, the levels increase when males are challenged. And after a competition, winning males’ testosterone levels increase while losers’ decrease. This phenomenon has been found to occur in physical competitions like wrestling and tennis and even in chance-driven competitions like coin flipping. Further, male fans of sports teams demonstrate similar testosterone changes in response to their teams’ success or failure even though they are not actually physically competing. Women, on the other hand, do not appear to respond to challenge and competition the same way.

What’s going on here?

One evolutionary explanation suggests that increased levels of testosterone in competition winners may reinforce the “winning” behavior and encourage further status-seeking behavior, which may lead to increased reproductive opportunities. On the other hand, decreased levels in losers may inhibit further confrontation in which the loser is harmed even more, which may lead to an end to reproductive opportunities in the worst case.

Okay, so what does this have to do with elections?

Elections are competitions, and most people in the U.S. have a “team,” either the Democrats or Republicans. It makes sense given the research just presented, then, that some of us (men) will experience a biological, testosterone-related reaction to the coming election results, or at least that’s what some smart researchers at Duke and the University of Michigan hypothesized and found.

On election night in 2008 they measured the salivary testosterone levels of both male and female voters several times, including after Democrat Barack Obama was declared the winner. They found that the testosterone levels of men who voted for Republican John McCain or Libertarian Robert Barr (i.e., “losers”) significantly dropped after the results were known relative to the testosterone levels of men who voted for Barack Obama (i.e., “winners”). (By the way, researchers at Harvard and New York University conducted a similar study and found similar results.)

To be accurate, levels for male Obama voters remained stable despite the fact that male testosterone levels drop to a daily low between about 7 p.m. and midnight, suggesting these voters experienced a surge in testosterone that offset the expected evening drop. Testosterone levels of men who voted for McCain or Barr did drop in real terms after the results were announced, and further tests ruled out the possibility the drop was caused by the natural evening decline in testosterone that men experience. Finally, female voters for none of the candidates experienced the same change in testosterone.

“Love”…”Love”…”Love”…

Not only does our biology help shape our political behavior (e.g., see my posts on disgust and right/left brain interaction), the political environment we are exposed to affects our biology. And women, don’t sit smugly by thinking you are immune from these hormonal effects. At some point I will post on research suggesting how the ovulatory cycle affects women’s political attitudes.

I know I’m pretty nerdy, but I don’t think I’m the only one who believes these effects are interesting. Regardless, I hope you “love” hearing about this interesting phenomenon, or at least don’t hate it. There, I got both words in this post. I’m looking forward to it being one of the Top 25 in November.

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For more information, see: Stanton SJ, JC Beehner, EK Saini, CM Kuhn, and KS LaBar (2009) “Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters' Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election.” PLoS ONE 4(10): e7543. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007543.

See also: Apecella, CL, and DA Cesarini (2011) “Testosterone and the Biology of Politics: Experimental Evidence from the 2008 Presidential Election.” In Man is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics, PK Hatemi and R McDermott (eds). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.   

If you enjoyed this post, please share it by email or on Facebook orTwitter. Follow me on Twitter @GreggRMurray to see other interesting research. 

Gregg R. Murray, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

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