July 4, 2011
- Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
Research shows that winning, especially on the home field, boosts your testosterone levels. And research shows that high levels of testosterone can cause health problems such as raising your bad cholesterol, accelerating some types of cancer, and increasing cardiovascular disease. Hypothetically, too much winning could kill you.
Okay, okay, I know that the testosterone boost one gets from winning is temporary. And I know most of the people who compete and win are young whereas the people most at risk for cancer and heart attacks are old. But could it be true that modern society creates too many opportunities for winning, which in turn boosts the average testosterone levels of both men and women to ranges that humans haven’t yet evolved to handle? If so, what’s the downside?
In cave-dwelling days, I’m guessing that only the chief of the clan had high testosterone. Research shows that leaders generally have a bit extra. In those times, when survival was the main agenda item, the rest of the clan had few opportunities to do anything that felt like “winning.” And no one was worried about cancer and heart attacks because the life expectancy was 25.
Fast-forward to today. We surround ourselves with artificial situations that cause us to feel like winners. School kids get medals for simply participating. Parents praise kids for any little success. Childhood is designed to build high self-esteem.
Throughout life, almost everyone plays some sort of game or sport. And we gravitate toward the competitions we win more than we lose. If you golf, your handicap is designed to allow you to win against better players. If video games are your game of choice, you can play at whatever level ensures you will win more than you lose.
In modern times we don’t have just one leader. You can be the president of a club, the captain of your team, the manager of your department, or run your own business. The options for being in charge of one thing or another are endless. And being in charge of just about anything boosts testosterone.
If being in charge isn’t your thing, you can acquire a sort of symbolic power by getting lots of Facebook friends or lots of Twitter followers. Any sort of status, and any sort of special attention, no matter how trivial in real importance, probably boosts testosterone. Society has accidentally evolved into a testosterone delivery system. That makes sense because higher levels of testosterone have been associated with feelings of well-being. Perhaps humans are literally addicted to the hormone.
If we assume that nature has distributed testosterone normally across humans, with some people having too little, most people having just the right amount, and some folks having too much, what is the impact of so many temporary boosts in testosterone? Are the people who already have plenty of testosterone getting poisoned?
Doctors can test for testosterone deficiency, but does anyone test for testosterone overload? And how important is it anyway? If you Google “testosterone behavior” you can see a number of experts weighing in on the question of how testosterone influences behavior.
I’ve recently learned that lots of educated people believe biology doesn’t have a decisive influence on human behavior because we have the power of reason. To others, that view falls somewhere between superstition and ignorance. To be fair, sometimes the biology-doesn’t-count view is more of an advocacy-based position, which is entirely reasonable to the degree that it helps accomplish something useful to society, such as reducing crime.
We humans have an instinct for sorting things into categories. We like clean boundaries. For example, we like to imagine that all of our thinking is done by our brains. But I wonder if it would be more accurate to extend our definition of “brain” to include the endocrine system.