This is probably a very sexist sounding article, so if you want to save some time just call me sexist now and go on your way. But if you want to stick around I’m going to be talking about men and the neurochemistry of aggression.
In The Grapes of Wrath
when the Dust Bowl is drying up the land and the banks are foreclosing on the farmers, John Steinbeck writes, “And the women went quickly, quietly back into the houses and herded the children ahead of them. They knew that a man so hurt and so perplexed may turn in anger, even on people he loves.” I’ve always found this an insightful observation, and I came to learn that there is a biological basis for this anger. It’s all about hormones.
Guys love to talk about women acting emotionally irrational because of their hormones, saying things like “Oh she’s just upset because she’s PMSing” or maybe “that’s just the hormones talking”. But men have hormones too. And while men’s hormones don’t vary in a monthly cyclical way, their hormonal irrationality can be just as predictable.
The hormone of interest here is testosterone. This is a gross oversimplification of the effects of testosterone, but basically it makes you feel more powerful and energetic. It is a good feeling. It also causes increased sex drive. People often think that testosterone causes increased aggression, but it’s actually more of the other way around. Increased aggression leads to increased testosterone.
Importantly men’s testosterone levels are affected by social standing. This is all easier to understand in gorillas (and other non-human primates), because they’ve got simpler societies, but they have basically the same neurobiology, so most everything applies to us. In gorillas there is a pecking order. The alpha male has the most testosterone, and gets to sleep with all the pretty lady gorillas. There’s a whole hierarchy of dominance. If you want to move up the ladder you’ve got to prove yourself in a fight. When two gorillas fight, the winner gets a testosterone boost while the loser experiences a testosterone decrease. Interestingly, the alpha male doesn’t get to be alpha because he has the most testosterone, but vice-versa. He gets the most testosterone because he proves himself to be alpha male by winning fights.
In humans, social defeats are not usually losing a fight, but the effects on testosterone are the same. Maybe you lose your job, or get embarrassed in front of your peers. Maybe you just lost the company softball game, or your favorite sports team lost. These are all examples of social defeat, and if you experience them, then your testosterone drops.
Unfortunately, when a guy’s testosterone levels drops he feels kind of crappy. He feels less powerful, and has less energy. It might even affect his sex drive. Most guys know this feeling, but don’t recognize it as being caused by changing hormones. They just know that the easiest way to deal with the feeling is to assert their dominance over someone else.
Asserting your dominance via fighting or shouting or video games or sports helps boost testosterone and stabilizes your mood. Now obviously some ways of boosting testosterone are more constructive than others (like exercise for example), but when your hormones are changing it’s a lot to ask to be completely rational. I’m not saying this is an excuse for men to act like assholes when they lose their job or get embarrassed; I’m just trying to explain the impulse.
If you’re a woman and get upset when guys blame your emotions on your hormones, I don’t recommend using this information in your next argument with a guy: “oh you’re just mad at me because you lost your job,” or “you’re just hormonal because those teenagers beat you at basketball”. It will only succeed in making them more upset (getting insulted is a form of social defeat). We all experience other people’s changes in hormones as “irrational moods” but we experience our own hormonal changes simply as “reality”. If you’re a guy, hopefully this gives you a better understanding of how your own emotions work, and more compassion towards how women feel when their hormones are changing. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing for well-being: a better understanding of ourselves, and more compassion towards others.
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