Darwin's Subterranean World

Evolution, Mind, and Mating Intelligence

The Reality About the Pill

The Contraceptive Ape (or How Hormonal Contraception Is Changing the World)

By Rebecca Newmark* (guest co-author) and Glenn Geher

Over the last few years, the pill has quickly garnered a growing amount of attention and controversy. Well, why not? The amount of women using a hormonal contraceptive (the pill is the most common form) has been increasing world-wide since first being introduced in 1960 (Rice & Thompson, 2006). It’s a good thing that women are curious about what they’re putting into their bodies. The not-so-good thing? With such curiosity and interest comes a whole lot of misconstrued information. Oftentimes, scientific results get misrepresen&ted in the media. Whether it is by misunderstanding, mistake, or a journalist’s prerogative, there’s a lot of incorrect information out there about birth control. As an example – many people seem to think that birth control decreases a woman’s sex drive. In reality, some women who use the pill do experience a decrease in sexual desire and sexual activity (Caruso, Agnello, Intelisano, Farina, Di Mari & Cianci, 2004). However, it has also been found that some women who use the pill report to be more interested in sexual behaviors compared to women who are not on birth control (Guillermo, Manlove, Gray, Zava, & Marrs, 2010).

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Before we get to the juicy part, here’s a very brief overview on hormonal birth control and ovulation. Women who are not on hormonal contraception, otherwise known as naturally cycling women, experience natural cyclic markers of fertility. In line with the female-quality hypothesis, these cyclical shifts that subtly signal a woman’s fertility allow women to compete with one another for potential mates (Haselton & Gildersleeve, 2011). Naturally cycling women are perceived as having more attractive faces and as smelling better when ovulating compared to when they are not ovulating (Roberts, Havlicek, Flegr, Hruskova, Little, Jones, et al., 2004; Thornhill et al., 2003). These are just two examples of many. The point is that naturally cycling women experience these cyclic shifts. Women who use hormonal contraception do not. We can therefore suspect that there are also other differences between pill users and nonusers on a broad array of social-related behavioral outcomes.

Now let’s get to the new exciting stuff. We examined various aspects of behavior in women who use birth control and women who do not. What did we find? Women who were on the pill were more intrasexually competitive compared to naturally cycling and ovulating women who were not on the pill. In other words, women on the pill reported to be more competitive with other women in regards to status and potential romantic partners with other women than women who were not on the pill.

What can we take from this finding? We know that women who use hormonal birth control display a higher occurrence of mate-retention tactics compared to women who do not use hormonal birth control (Welling et al., 2012; Geary et al., 2001). We also know that partnered women who use hormonal birth control report higher levels of jealousy compared to nonusers (Cobey et al., 2012). This finding was derived from a within-subjects design – all data came from the same women. Due to this study’s design, we can infer a causal relationship. When women took the pill, they became more jealous. Our finding that pill users are more competitive with other women in regards to romantic partners than nonusers both supports and adds another facet to the jealousy factor.

So why would this be? Why would women who do not experience regular ovulation demonstrate more jealousy and more competition with other women in a mating context? Perhaps being in a state of never ovulating – having one’s body “fooled into being pregnant” signals to a woman that she is in a state that corresponds to a need for long-term mateships – and a particularly strong need to hold onto one’s partner. The mating-relevant psychology (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013) of a pregnant woman is not to find a young hot guy, but, rather, to keep the nice guy who’s currently on the scene. This is all part of the highly flexible and strategic nature of human mating intelligence.

From this perspective, a society with a large proportion of women taking hormonal contraceptives may well include a shift in female mating psychology – leading to:

-       An increase in processes associated with long-term mating

-       An increase in such processes as jealousy and mate-guarding

-       An increase in female/female competition

This same phenomenon, an increase in the proportion of females taking hormonal contraceptives, may also lead to a reduction in females engaging in short-term mating tactics – perhaps fewer one-night stands that have expectations of no strings attached and fewer women seeking out hyper-macho knucklehead types of guys.

The long-term societal implications, when you stand, back, are potentially staggering – as this all has implications for who will mate with whom which, of course, directly corresponds to the nature of who will be around in the future to call themselves human!

References

Caruso, S., Agnello, C., Intelisano, G., Farina, M., Di Mari, L., & Cianci, A. (2004). Sexual behavior of women taking low-dose oral contraceptive containing 15 microg ethinylestradiol/60 microg gestodene. Contraception, 69(3), 237-240.

Cobey, K.D., Buunk, A.P., Roberts, S.C., Klipping, C., Appels, N., Zimmerman, Y., Coelingh Bennick, H.J.T., & Pollet, T.V. (2012). Reported jealousy differs as a function of menstrual cycle stage and contraceptive pill use: A within-subjects investigation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(4), 395-401.

Geary, D.C., DeSoto, M.C., Hoard, M.K., Sheldon, M.S., & Cooper, M.L. (2001). Estrogens and relationship jealousy. Human Nature, 12(4), 299-320.

Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating intelligence unleashed: The role of the mind in sex, dating, and love. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press. 

Guillermo, C.J., Manlove, H.A., Gray, P.B., Zava, D.T., & Marrs, C.R. (2010). Female social  and sexual interest across the menstrual cycle. BMC Women's Health, 10 (19).

Haselton, M.G., & Gildersleeve, K. (2011). Can men detect ovulation? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (2), 87-92.

Rice, C., & Thompson, J. (2006). Selecting a hormonal contraceptive that suits your patient’s needs. Women’s Health in Primary Care: Gynecology Edition, 6(6), 26-34.

Roberts, S.C., Havlicek, J., Flegr, J., Hruskova, M., Little, A.C., Jones, B.C., Perrett, D.I., & Petrie, M. (2004). Female facial attractiveness increases during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 271, S270-S272.

Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S.W., Miller, R., Scheyd, G., McCullough, J., & Franklin, M. (2003). Major histocompatibility complex genes, symmetry and body scent attractiveness in men and women. Behavioral Ecology, 14(5), 668-678.

Welling, L.L.M., Puts, D.A., Roberts, S.C., Little, A.C., & Burriss, R.P. (2012). Hormonal contraceptive use and mate retention behavior in women and their male partners. Hormones and Behavior, 61(1), 114-120.

Rebecca Newmark* completed her BA in Psychology at Binghamton University and her Master’s Degree in Psychology in the Evolutionary Psychology Lab at SUNY New Paltz. She now lives in Israel with her fiancé and plans to continue her research and scholarship in the field of psychology soon!

Glenn Geher, Ph.D., is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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