Rethinking Testosterone 

At a recent talk, which can be accessed here, I explained that testosterone went some -but only some- way to explaining the reason that 95% of prisoners in U.K prisons are male. Testosterone makes men more inclined to take risks, and more aggressive I explained. 

Having just finished Cordelia Fine’s excellent Testosterone Rex, it seems that I may have been overstating testosterone’s role in male aggression and greater predilection for risk. 

As Fine explains eloquently, with humour, and in considerable detail in her book, the role of testosterone in influencing male behaviour is potentially far lesser than we have been led to believe. 

Here’s a summary of three of Fine’s more interesting points.

1. Testosterone and Risk 

The assertion that testosterone makes men more inclined to take risks is flawed at a fundamental level, purely because the majority of studies on this area, are gender-biased themselves. That is, the risks posed to male and female participants in risk studies – ‘Would you do a sky dive?’; ‘How much would you be willing to bet on such and such a game?’; ‘Would you have unprotected sex’ – are biased in favour of men. That is, they relate to experiences more commonly experienced by men as a result of gender socialisation. For example, society encourages men to take part in elaborate displays of machismo such as jumping out of metal objects thousands of feet high in the air; men are also more likely to be found sweating in betting shops and, because men are not troubled with the burden of carrying an actual human being inside them for 9 months,  unprotected sex is far less risky for a man.

Other studies looking at the behaviour of risky individuals have shown that human tendency towards risk does not stretch across all areas of an individual’s life. For example, a stock broker may be quite content to risk huge amounts of money on brokering a deal, but when it comes to riding a bike, they won’t do so without being wrapped in thirty layers of bubble wrap. Similarly, a BMX cyclist may be quite content to spend all day back flipping off their BMX in an array of dangerous situations, but when it comes to finance, they’re loathe to spend a penny in case the purchase doesn’t ‘pay-off’.

Finally, studies are showing that human tendency towards risk is context based. For example, studies in China show that women are every bit as risky as men so long as they aren’t aware of being observed. In the same study men became more risky in the presence of an observer.

The fact is, risk is a slippery and intangible topic and as such, it’s very difficult to say that tendency towards risk is a masculine behaviour created by testosterone. 

2. Testosterone’s Role 

Fine points out that testosterone’s role in guiding the body’s biological and behavioural processes is simply the most easily measurable amongst a whole host of other, more difficult to measure, processes such as: 

the conversion (of testosterone) to oestrogen, how much aromatise is around to make that happen, the amount of oestrogen produced by the brain itself, the number, and nature of androgen and oestrogen receptors, where they are located, their sensitivity…(pg.136)

All this means that actually, ‘the absolute testosterone level in the blood or saliva is likely to be an extremely crude guide to testosterone’s effect on the brain.’

As if this wasn’t enough to cast some shade on the long held belief that testosterone acts as a kind of hormonal tyrant, leading men into all sorts of danger and criminality,    there is increasing evidence to show that hormones don’t actually cause behaviour; rather, they simply make a behavioural response to an external stimulus more or less likely depending on wider social context. Whilst Fine doesn’t quote any human studies, she does make reference to a number of animal studies on Testosterone such as one in which male rhesus monkeys, were given a testosterone suppressant: the sexual behaviour of the highest ranking males was not affected by testosterone suppression, whilst those of lower ranking males was. All of which points to the fact that social context has greater impact than testosterone.

3. Testosterone and Behaviour: a role reversal?

Although the widely held view is that testosterone influences social behaviour, some studies have actually shown that social behaviour influences testosterone levels. For example, in humans, becoming a father will lower testosterone in men. However, the extent to which levels of testosterone are lowered depend on context. Tribes where paternal care was the norm saw greater reduction in testosterone levels than in tribes where paternal care was minimal. 

Another fascinating study gave male participants a fake baby to look after. For some men, the babies were programmed to cry persistently irrespective of the care given to it by the participants. Participants who had the crying babies had an increase of testosterone whilst those whose baby stopped crying when attended to, saw a drop in testosterone levels. All this is to say that testoserone is controlled and influenced by external stimuli ( in this case a crying baby), rather than, as one might expect, testosterone had an impact on these men’s ability to care for a child. 

Another study, conducted by the same researchers, showed that a role play situation in which both men and women were asked to enact power by firing someone, had no impact on male’s testosterone levels but significantly increased it on women. 

What does this mean for teachers?

Testosterone is a complicated beast. The view that males are victims of their hormonal urges cannot be taken seriously. Boys’ aggression and tendency to risky behaviour’s (misbehaving) cannot be put down to testosterone. As teachers we should take comfort in this fact: after all, arguably, it is easier to reverse social behaviours than it is to reverse the effects of thousands of years of evolutionary biology. 

By the time students reach Secondary school, the damaging effects of gender socialisation have most likely taken place and schools must take a directed and concerted effort at breaking down gender barriers that have been 11 years in the making.

At primary level, teachers need to be aware of the sketchy research base on testosterone and actively do what they can to ensure that misconceptions about the biology of boys and girls doesn’t impact on teachers’ perception- and therefore the way they encourage them to behave- of boys and girls.

In June, I’ll be talking about Violence and Boys, and what I think schools can do to tackle this problem, at TeachMeet Herts (#TMHerts). Once that’s done, I’ll blog about my proposed solution to the problem. 

Works Cited: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine. 

Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

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