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Who's in Charge, Your Mind or Your Brain?

Two men of science conduct a "study" of testosterone levels at a hockey game.

Authors: David Ropeik MSJ, Keith Welker Ph.D., Kathleen Casto, Ph.D., Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., Steven Pinker Ph.D.

(The first author is solely responsible for the foolishness that follows.)


Changes in levels of testosterone and cortisol—hormones associated with aggression and stress—occur in fans attending sporting events in response to how well or poorly the team they are rooting for is doing. These biological changes, occurring outside of conscious awareness and control, influence how people perceive events and how they behave, both during and after the game. (The beer does too.) This supports the view that human perceptions, decision-making, and behavior may be determined more by innate biological processes (and/or beer) than by the conscious purposeful reasoning of an actor with complete free will.

This small experiment, (really small, N = 2), was conducted at a Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens hockey game, to investigate whether and to what degree these hormonal changes occur in educated intelligent subjects. Steven Pinker, a devoted Canadiens fan (he was raised in Montreal), and David Ropeik, a casual Boston Bruins fan (raised in New Jersey), watched the game from the front row, at center ice (the best seats either of them had ever had for a hockey game! See Exhibit One) in the TD Garden arena in Boston. Pre and post-game saliva samples from each subject were analyzed for cortisol and testosterone levels.

David Ropeik
Source: David Ropeik


Despite the fact that the two participants were rooting for different teams and that the game was a 4–0 rout in favor of the Bruins, cortisol levels dropped almost equally in both subjects. Testosterone also dropped in both subjects, but more dramatically for Pinker (~50 percent), whose team was whomped, than for Ropeik (~16 percent), whose team did the whomping. Based on these results, a sample size of two, and numerous confounders not controlled for, absolutely no scientifically reliable findings were produced.

The experiment did, however, establish that:

1. It takes a surprisingly long time (several minutes) and multiple expectorations to produce a sample of just 2 ml (0.07 oz) of saliva in a vial.

2. Repeatedly spitting into a vial in public causes strange looks from passersby.

3. It’s fun to go to a hockey game with Steven Pinker, do a silly psychology test, and talk about—among many other things—determinism versus free will and whether human reason can overpower the hard-wired neural processes that influence (control?) how we think and feel and act and decide, a central topic in Pinker’s forthcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

4. Hockey players are huge, and skate really fast, when you see the game from up close.

Study design, methods

Saliva samples were collected from each participant immediately before the game. Subjects then had dinner, including alcoholic beverages (participants agreed to a limit of one large beer each, to keep alcohol consumption equal between subjects, and the participants sober), watched the game, and immediately afterwards—while still at their seats—produced a second saliva sample into vials (Exhibit 2) while security guards and several fans watched, not so much to ensure that proper procedure was followed as to wonder what the hell those two guys were doing, spitting into a tube. Samples were kept on ice until delivery to a laboratory, where they were frozen at -30° C prior to analysis.

David Ropeik
Source: David Ropeik

Exhibit Two


Ropeik is a 66-year-old white male, a part-time Harvard instructor, and author of two books that most people have never heard of (even though Pinker wrote a blurb for one of them), with minimal post-graduate education, no standing as a scholar, and mediocre test scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a measure of critical thinking skills. Pinker is a not-quite-as-old as Ropeik white male who was raised in Montreal and maintains his childhood devotion to the Canadiens (Les Habs), has extensive post-graduate education, an endowed professorship in psychology at Harvard, a deep body of groundbreaking scholarship including several bestselling books, and enjoys deserved international recognition as one of the most important intellectuals of our time. (Given all that, it would have been embarrassing to ask Pinker to take the CRT. Besides, he knows the answers by heart. Spoiler alert; 5 cents, five minutes, 47 days.)

Data analysis

Test protocols and equipment were graciously provided by Dr. Keith Welker, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Processes, Affect, and Neuroendocrinology Lab at the University of Massachusetts—Boston, with assistance from Kathleen Casto, a post-doctoral researcher studying neuroendocrinology in athletes working in the Social Psychoneuroendocrinology Lab of Dr. Pranjal Mehta at the University of Oregon. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology and neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford, assisted in the early stages of study design.

Samples were analyzed for testosterone by liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry and for cortisol using enzyme-linked immunoassays from Salimetrics, LLC. (Which is a lot of multisyllabic, impressively scientific- sounding testing, given how little was learned.) Data are summarized in Table One (testosterone levels) and Two (cortisol levels) provided by Dr. Welker.

Chart by Dr. Keith Welker
Source: Chart by Dr. Keith Welker


Chart by Dr. Keith Welker
Source: Chart by Dr. Keith Welker



Research has established that levels of testosterone (which is connected with dominance-seeking behavior and aggression) and cortisol (associated with stress and fear) fluctuate in both men and women watching a sporting event, generally rising when the favored team does well and dropping when the favored team fares poorly. The more intensely the spectator is invested in the outcome, the greater the fluctuations. It is speculated that these changes are triggered by the instinctive need of the social human animal to affiliate with a group, which enhances the individual’s safety and chances of survival (as has been observed among other primates by Sapolsky and others).

Our distant ancestors may not have had organized sports (no archeological evidence predating Homo sapiens has been found of ancient hockey rinks or other sports venues), but they had in-groups/tribes, and everybody in a group/tribe knew, without thinking about it, that sticking together was safer than going it alone. So we instinctively affiliate in groups/tribes, and one way we do that is to demonstrate loyalty to our tribe. That contributes to overall group solidarity and strength, and signals one’s status as worthy of the group’s support and protection.

Our fancy neocortical reasoning abilities have evolved on top (literally on top, in the architecture of the brain) of those old critical survival instincts, which still play a dominant role in human cognition. And you can see this in how we root for our sports teams. After all, these teams are merely modern surrogates for our ancient tribal warriors. Both are/were doing battle as representatives of our group. So the success or failure of our team (or political party, or any of the other groups with which we identify) stimulates our instinctive sense of safety or vulnerability, triggering innate sub- and preconscious biological responses that include shifts in levels of testosterone and cortisol, leading to all sorts of tribal sports fan behavior that essentially signals how safe or threatened we feel. Or so most social neuroendocrinologists assume.

Here’s one entertaining example. Work by Cialdini et. al. have found that when the team we are rooting for wins, we are more likely to affiliate with the successful team (tribe) by describing the result in the first person, “we won,” and when our team loses we are more likely to distance ourselves from the team (tribe) by using the third person, “they lost." This has been called Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing) and Cutting Off Reflected Failure (CORFing).

But this phenomenon touches far more than which teams we root for, and how ardently we root. This is the powerful subconscious biology of why facts don‘t matter to people on issues related to their tribal identity. When loyalty to the tribe, i.e safety, is at stake, we see the evidence in ways that demonstrate loyalty to the tribe, not to reason, as revealed by the research of Dan Kahan and The Cultural Cognition Project. The brain’s primary job, after all, is to get us (our genes) safely to bed, not figure things out with perfectly dispassionate analysis. Free will and objective conscious reasoning in the average partisan? Not so much.

These fluctuations in both pronouns and hormones, the result of subconscious responses to stimuli, are one of many lines of evidence supporting the idea of biological determinism, the idea that human judgments and behaviors are just the post-hoc product of our neural machinery, not the result of purposeful conscious reasoning by an agent operating with total free will. But little work has been done to investigate what impact education and intelligence levels have on this phenomenon. Kahan has done some, with Ellen Peters, Erica Dawson, and Paul Slovic, finding that the more educated and intelligent someone is, the better they (their subconscious brain) are at twisting the facts so their views loyally match those of his/her political tribe.

But what about these fluctuations in testosterone and cortisol while watching sporting events? Do they occur, and to what degree, in people with higher levels of education and intelligence? This experiment asked and failed to answer that question. But it raised the issue of determinism versus free will as Pinker and Ropeik chatted during the game. Ropeik has written a couple books nobody’s ever heard of, and is no more than a reasonably well-informed layman. He offered to Pinker that Ambrose Bierce had it right in the Devil’s Dictionary, defining the brain as “the organ with which we think we think”. Ropeik believes that our biology is mostly running the show, based on the writing of Robert Sapolsky (Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst ) Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s In Charge?) Antonio Damasio (Descartes Error), Joseph Ledoux (The Emotional Brain), Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), Paul Slovic (The Feeling of Risk), and many others, as well as his own experience witnessing human behavior during 22 years as a daily journalist in Boston.

Ropeik believes that consciousness, and ‘the mind’, are merely concepts we invent to describe what the brain does. They are just one manifestation of how the brain (the left side in particular, according to research on split brain patients by Gazzaniga and others) tries to “make sense of things”, finding patterns and creating stories to give us an understanding of and thus some control over events. We need to make sense of things to keep ourselves safe. Almost all of this internal mental story-telling happens before consciousness even comes into play, describing post-facto what the brain and body have already been up to.

Pinker, who actually knows what he’s talking about, (he did, after all, write a bestselling book called How the Mind Works) acknowledged to Ropeik that a lot of human judgment and behavior—including reasoning itse—is determined by basic biology, but he remains confident in human intelligence and free will. The Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard/National Academy of Sciences member/winner of the 2016 William James Fellow Award from the Association of Psychological Science believes that we are smart enough to be at least somewhat in control of the choices we make, not helplessly entirely under the control of our biology. To Pinker’s accomplished mind, (the mind, it should be noted, of a scholar and intellectual whose whole world revolves around the very idea of the power of intellect) the evidence suggests that the reasoning mind can—at least in some circumstances—control the automatic brain.

He acknowledged that some of the choices we make as individuals may seem irrational (i.e. they fly in the face of the facts and sometimes even fly in the face of our own self-interest) but he has faith in institutions and societal norms…us, thinking and acting not as individuals, but together…to produce better reasoning than we do when left to our own devices. We may be more instinctive thinkers as individuals, but we’re better reasoners en masse. Pinker is confident that society can produce more rational solutions to our increasingly complex problems by striving to fulfill the enlightenment ideals of reason and science. And he notes in his forthcoming book as evidence that thanks to reason, and the scientific process built on our ability to reason, people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives. Safer too, as he noted in his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Ropeik said he shared some of Pinker’s optimism, but remained skeptical, and made a mental note to put Pinker’s upcoming Enlightenment Now at the top of his "books to read" list.

Then Zdeno Chara snapped a wrist shot past the shoulder of the Canadiens goalie and the score went to 3–0 Boston late in the second period. Pinker’s beloved Canadiens were being throttled by their old arch-rivals the Bruins, and down went this great thinker’s testosterone—entirely without any free will/conscious control on his part—and the heady conversation drifted off to more mundane matters.


So many this paper would be way too long if they were all described. Not least of which was the beer at dinner.


1. Montreal needed to find more scoring power if they wanted to go deep in the playoffs. (They didn’t, but neither did the Bruins.)

2. We need to figure out just how smart and rational and objectively evidence-based our thinking can ever be. How much free will do we actually have, or to what degree are our judgments and behaviors, made either as individuals or even when we act en masse, mostly determined by our instinctive biology? Can conscious reason alone help us find solutions to the existential threats we face? Was Enlightenment pioneer Immanuel Kant right when he wrote “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” Or is human behavior more accurately described by Thomas Aquinas, who said, “Most men seem to live according to sense rather than reason.”

To the extent that Aquinas and The Determinists (good name for a rock band) are mostly right, wouldn’t we be better off humbly acknowledging the inherent limits on reasoning that we’re stuck with and understand in as much detail as possible just what actually determines our choices and behaviors? Wouldn’t it be wiser to incorporate into our thinking a more realistic understanding of how human judgment and decision making really work? Wouldn’t it be truest to the Enlightenment ideal of science and reason if we used everything science has discovered about the inherent limits of human reason…to reason better? Mightn’t it help us come up with even better solutions to the complicated challenges we face if we recognize that, as Italian philosopher Nicholas Abbagnano put it, “Reason itself is fallible, and this fallibility must find a place in our logic.”

3. Further investigation of hormone level fluctuations during a sporting event in sports fans with high intelligence and reasoning skills is warranted. (Well, D’uh!)

Conflict of interest

None. The first author of this article only linked to the work of other people, and none of them paid him to do so.

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