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Testosterone overrated?

July 14, 2008

The male hormone Testosterone has been found to be associated with “dominant” and “aggressive” behavior and as men have higher levels of Testosterone, many assume that their “aggressive” behavior is linked to their biological make-up. However, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that its the testosterone which counts. Environmental factors play an important role.* And even when it comes to biological factors, I doubt whether its just the testosterone. Women are aggressive too, without loads of testosterone.

I personally believe (even if both biological and environmental factors play a part) that levels of aggression depend on the individual and not on gender. Let me explain what I mean.

Women are not less aggressive than men
I never really believed that women are less aggressive than men. It’s just that they express their aggression differently. Having studied in an all-girls convent school and later brought up in a society where one tended to come (predominantly) in contact with people of one’s own sex, one gets to know people of one’s sex quite well. From what I have seen, aggressive women reveal their aggression in indirect ways.

As we all know, the term aggression means far more than just physical aggression. So, if we leave out physical assault and murder, and consider only interactions in daily life, we will see that men and women are almost equally aggressive. Or let us say equally soft and gentle. It depends on the individual, not their gender.

Take bullying, which can take place in school, at home and at the workplace and can involve yelling, constant criticism, nagging, putting the other person down, withholding information, acting difficult and uncooperative. In a workplace study, more women are found to be bullies than men – 58 percent vs. 42 percent. Though ofcourse victims were also usually women – women targeted other women 80 percent of the time and men targeted women 70 percent of the time.

But why am I leaving out physical violence where men are the main perpetrators? Well, I think that if more criminal minded men commit violent crimes (as compared to criminal minded women) one of the reasons is that because they can get away with it…because they have more physical strength. Now physical strength itself is linked to testosterone so there goes my theory!! As testosterone affects physical characteristics like muscle strength, this superior physical prowess could give men (if they are so inclined) the nerve and confidence to commit physical assault. So testosterone is linked to physical aggression, but I don’t think it is linked to indirect aggression.

In fact, it is interesting to note that although women overall are not prone to violent crime…they are the same as men when it comes to murdering their own children.

Men express their aggression differently
When it comes to minor (not criminal) aggression incidents in our daily life, a man’s aggression is more likely to be expressed in physical ways (as compared to women) and I see it that as a result of a societal conditioning. Pushing and shoving someone for example. Its considered unladylike for girls and women to do, but tolerated if a boy does it. Pushing someone or throwing a punch is a negative expression of aggression, but its important to note that it’s tolerated in men.

Men’s expression of aggression changing?
In ancient times physical aggression was necessary just to survive, but in modern society there is no need to be physically aggressive to survive. In fact it might even be detrimental. A boy who gets into fights becomes the bad boy. He is forced by civilized society to channelise his aggression into other forms of expression.

Sophisticated and “civilised” men with aggressive tendencies learn to exhibit their aggression in different ways. They could adopt indirect methods.

These are just a few of the things which are manifestation of indirect aggression:

  • Ostracizing a person
  • Gossiping
  • Public ridicule and making fun of others
  • Backbiting
  • Interference

These are also negative methods of expressing one’s aggression, as negative as hitting someone. But many of these methods, being associated with “female aggression,” have far more negative overtones than blatant physical aggression. But at the end of the day, they are just as undesirable as hitting someone.

Here are some more examples…filing of trivial court cases…or even honking or driving rashly. Positive ways to channelize aggression are sports activities…or competitiveness in one’s profession.

It can’t be just testosterone!
As aggression exhibited in daily interactions is equally dispersed between both sexes, I am not sure of the role of testosterone. Why is so much importance given to this hormone specially when there is new research which says that estrogen has a role to play in increased aggression? And it’s also an acknowledged fact that social conditioning plays a very important part. True, the administration of female hormones such as estrogen and Progesterone has also been shown to reduce aggression in men but then aggression levels in men do not match with their testosterone levels! There are men with high testosterone levels who have been found to have low levels of aggression.

There has to be some other undiscovered biological factor which influences aggression levels, if one has to find a biological link. If aggression is found to be equally distributed in both men and women then it surely has to be so?

If at all one wants to relate aggression levels to biology, there is news that another hormone, Serotonin, is linked to levels of aggression, playing an important role in regulating aggressive behavior in animals and people.

…the lower level of serotonin, the more are the chances that an individual will show hostility or act in aggressive and anxious manner. The high level of serotonin will contribute to feelings of happiness, emotional gratification and be an effective stress killer.

As research is ongoing, I am sure in another few years, more such chemicals, genes and hormones will be discovered which play a dynamic role in a person’s aggressive behavior, alongwith environmental influences. Something tells me that scientists will relegate the hormone testosterone to a lesser role and its influence will be considered more important in defining physical characteristics.

The future of aggression
I see physical violence gradually reducing in this world. I know this idea sounds a little shocking if one looks at the level of violence in the world today. But I feel if one compares the level of violence in the world today to the level of violence say 100 or 200 years ago, its much less. The further we go back into our history, the more violent it is.

Violence has no place in modern, liberal, cultured and civilized societies. But a human being’s level of aggression is not going to go away! The manifestation will become indirect. I see more and more men (those who have an aggressive streak) using indirect means to exhibit their aggression, something that women with aggressive tendencies have been doing down the ages. A kind of gender balance to so to speak.

*(Social Psychology by Robert A. Baron and Donn Byrne)

(Note: I wrote this post as I personally believe that women are as aggressive as men. I have tried to explain why I think so, and have taken the support of some authoritative articles. But I am no scientist, and nor am I a psychologist so do excuse the lapse in my understanding of this complex subject! Thank you for reading.)

(Photograph is copyrighted to me)

Related Reading: Television violence and its affects on children
Aggression in children can lead to tragedy
Depression, nervousness, anxiety and irritability? Blame it on the food!
Why men rape
Filicide – both men and women kill their children

22 Comments leave one →
  1. vivek mittal permalink
    July 14, 2008 6:28 pm

    I even heard that men are not even physically stronger than women ..they just have more muscular body and that’s it
    Though i dont know how to verify that🙂

  2. vivek mittal permalink
    July 14, 2008 6:59 pm

    It’s true that women dont tend to commit physical voilence….that probably because of deep rooted belief that women should be more shy etc…and to indulge in physical violence is NOT feminine characteristic..

    and it’s a basic nature in humans that they dont want to be associated with a characteric which is perceived as a trait of opposit sex…..because we humans are atttracted to opposite sex because they POSSESS characteristics of opposite sex..i would never go after a girl who is known for her dadagiri, physical aggression etc🙂

  3. July 14, 2008 7:32 pm

    I completely agree Nita with your essay. Women can be just as aggressive as men, but for different reasons and results.

  4. July 14, 2008 7:32 pm

    @Vivek

    Women give birth. That’s how to verify.

  5. July 14, 2008 9:24 pm

    I agree that it cant be just testosterone..and I also agree totally that men and women show aggression differently, I have met women who are far more aggressive in approach compared to men. May its got to do a lot on our own upbringing, our nature and our priorities.

  6. July 14, 2008 9:25 pm

    @Vivek/Brian..Women have a lot more patience, and also ability to withstand pain

  7. lallopallo permalink
    July 14, 2008 9:25 pm

    Nice post! Iam also pretty certain that women could be equally aggresive, if not more than men.

  8. July 14, 2008 9:47 pm

    i agrre we were more violent “back’ then…but i don’t think it is the end…after all according to Edgar casey ,Nosterdamus and others the world is supposed to end soon…but i give the world a little more time…infact i think it is very much in our hands …

    and as for aggression…we all have innate aggression in us…if we can control it to suit our need then it is better…

  9. July 14, 2008 10:19 pm

    Being in a male dominated society, women always tend to find a different vent for their aggression which is different from what men excel in. Your conclusion is very interesting but I would really like to know how such behaviour is influenced by more progress and equality. For e.g are the behaviour patterns different in India and U.S. ? That would be really interesting to know.🙂

  10. July 14, 2008 10:49 pm

    I think the difference lies in the expression of aggression. But we see on a large scale and not some urban area or educated group, rural women or women who live in slums are quite aggressive to fill their pot with water first and even fight tooth and nail!! In urban culture this crudeness is suppressed but what can be a better example of aggression than a mean mother-in-law? In education also the girls are subtly more aggressive than the boys. I feel boys are physically aggressive whereas girls are mentally aggressive and thats more lethal😀 But I dont agree that we will see a decrease in aggression in future.

    //if one compares the level of violence in the world today to the level of violence say 100 or 200 years ago, its much less.// Absolutely not!!! The war of Isarel, Kuwait, WW II, Vietnam war, N-bombing etc etc are way more violent than the battle of panipat or crusades or whatever. The frequency doesnt matter, what matters is the impact, the magnitude of the violence. and speaking of TODAY what about terrorism and daily bomb blasts and the Iraq war??? Also communal riots, murders what not! We are on the path of increase not decrease.

  11. Ali permalink
    July 14, 2008 10:56 pm

    I do agree that it depends on how we define aggression. If we expand the definition of aggression to include non-physical acts, as you suggest, then women are probably just as aggressive as men are. However, testosterone and other hormones do play a part in behavior, as do environmental factors. (Don’t forget that the human brain is affected by hormone levels prior to birth in the womb, too!) In the end, both men and women act aggressively. It’s just that men tend towards physical aggression, while women tend to express aggression via language. Likewise, men tend to become aggressive in response to anger or in an effort to express dominance, while women tend to become aggressive in an effort to minimize or stigmatize social behavior they see as undesirable or weak.

    Take bullying for example. While both boys and girls use name-calling as a “soft” bullying technique, boy bullies tend to resort to threats of violence and physical aggression, while girl bullies tend to fall back on insults and threats of exclusion or ridicule. This behavior is a result of both biological and cultural or environmental aspects. This is not to say that there aren’t girls who fight and get involved in gang violence or boys who use sarcasm and argumentation as tools to battle perceived enemies. There certainly are! But then again, the tools that one choses depend upon a variety of biological and environmental factors.

  12. July 14, 2008 11:33 pm

    Governments are pharmaceutical companies are actively engaging in plots to reduce men’s testosterone levels (and to increase women’s testosterone levels). Men are more easily controlled and less prone to violent revolution with lower levels. Also, they tend to copulate less (aiding in global depopulation plans). Women are made more aggressive in an attempt to blur the distinctions between men and women’s natural predisposition. The endgame agenda is a world of androgynous robots who are controlled in a police state. The Tavistock Institute, the U.N., the Bilderberg Group, the Ford Foundation and related Rockefeller non-profits, and the U.S. Government are the main proponents.

  13. July 14, 2008 11:41 pm

    I agree with you that women are equally as aggressive as men. While studying behavioral studies, my lecturer used to say, that mental bullying is as bad as physical bullying that women are good at. The reason that the aggressive nature of women is not really seen is because, mental trauma is hard to detect, and measure, while physical injuries are easy to see and empathize. But a future without physical aggression is a little hard to contemplate, given the excessive growth in population, and diminishing resources. Some where equilibrium has to be got. May be physical aggression will be called war, or riots, but my guess is it will remain along with mental aggression.

  14. July 15, 2008 2:50 am

    Nita, a very intresting post!

    Today it is popular in the western media to explain everything with the increase/decrease of testesteron level.

    Here I found something intresting:” Research since then on testosterone and behaviour, in both animals and humans, tended to concentrate on the steroid’s effects on aggression. But it was never clear if testosterone was causing the aggression, or aggression causing the testosterone to increase. There has also been a great deal of research on the anabolic effects of androgens, specifically on athletes. ” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2008/04/18/DI2008041801784.html

    Another very intresting study: Rob Stein writes: “By measuring young male traders’ hormone levels as they brokered high-stakes deals, the researchers showed that they tended to make more money on days when their testosterone levels were high. That suggests that the hormone makes them more likely to take profitable risks, but also that it may play a role in pumping up economic bubbles.” – I really like this example because one can see how much “driven” one should be to be able to survive in sales.

    Regarding male and female agression I can only confirm – yes, it is different and a human being is a much more comlicated being and can not be reduced to only one hormone🙂 I feel you are right, that there is a number of differnt factors that influnce agression and thus it is being expressed differntly in both the sexes.

  15. Brian permalink
    July 15, 2008 5:30 am

    I suggest listening to this episode of “This American Life”. it will change the way you think about T.

    http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1230

  16. July 15, 2008 6:27 am

    interesting post..
    i completely agree that women can be aggressive in indirect ways .
    well ..ur conclusion about physical agression to be less is true..

  17. July 15, 2008 8:06 am

    Vivek, perhaps you could challenge the woman to a panja match.🙂

    Brian, Lallopallo, thanks

    Rambler, I have also met a lot of aggressive women. A simple activity like shopping can get difficult if you go to shop at a sale and its crowded. People grab stuff and shamelessly push you. Seemingly educated people…!

    Vishesh, control is the key!! And channelising aggression in the right way.

    Amit,
    from what I see, progress and gender equality channelizes aggression into other streams. eg, competitive sports at the international level. another eg. capitalism. One company eating up another is a form of aggression.
    But overall it’s a very very slow process and violence in society may have decreased only very slightly, too slightly to be noticed. I would give it another 1000 years to see an obvious decline.

    Reema, you have given a good example – of competition in academics. I have seen how obsessed students become for that extra mark and I have seen girls more affected by this.
    And yes, those examples of violence today are right ofcourse. But somehow I still think there are more peaceful countries today than they were earlier. We are moving towards a more peaceful society, I think. Those countries where there is a huge amount of violence have not learnt to direct their energies into positive streams. Take Saudi Arabia. It is a repressed regime.
    In any case, I meant the human race in the long term. I really love to imagine a world in the far future, having been a SF buff since my childhood days. I am talking of 1000 years plus.
    Terrorism is a blip on the radar of time…but again my personal opinion!

    Ali, I am sure testosterone plays a part, but I just feel that other hormones and chemicals play a part too. But overall, you have summed it up nicely. Thanks.

    Johnny, thanks. I had not known of this.

    thoughtroom, yes, mental scars are not seen and so we tend to downplay the hurt. I think any kind of strong verbal abuse (like using filthy words etc) is also an act of overt aggression.
    About the future, physical aggression I think will gradually disappear, but that’s just my opinion and I am in any case talking of a future 1000 years from now. Maybe even 2000 years from now. Human behavior changes very gradually and from what I see around me, I think violence has reduced.

    Axinia, thanks! I agree with you wholeheartedly, I feel testosterone has got too much popularity! I am sure it has an influence, but 20 years from now scientists will surely have discovered something more. So much bio-research is going on now. Thanks for that overview!

  18. Sakhi permalink
    July 15, 2008 8:40 am

    Once again a good post, Nita!

    I do believe that women can be as aggressive as their counter part. Only the way of expression changes. Males are more into physical expressiveness because of the stronger physical built where as women are more mentally aggressive!

    Women have some amount of testosterone in them! Though it is less active in presence of oestrogen in the reproductive age.

    And the human emotions are so varied that it is difficult to know exactly which hormone is playing role. But yes, testosterone and estrogen are responsible for their respective gender aggressive and softness in man and woman. Te social conditioning when we talk about should be looked into when the comparabloe subjects come from the same background!

    Other neurotransmitters like serotonine, dopamine and the likes also play significant role in the human emotional built up!

    I think i should rest my fingers now, kuchh jyaada hi science ho gaya!🙂

  19. Guqin permalink
    July 15, 2008 12:22 pm

    Men seem to be more capable of impersonal aggression while women personal aggression. In this sense, men sound “colder” and women “meaner”. But the impersonality of aggression can rapidly generate large organized violence such as wars: as expected, mostly by men.

  20. July 15, 2008 3:00 pm

    Hi! completely agree with you: levels of aggression depend on the individual and not on gender. Of course the biological side its very important, but also it depends on the character of each individual.
    I think women can be much more agressive than men, expressed in all forms. We women know, different and complicated ways to be agressive in a “sophisticated” way. I think we are much more competitive also than men.
    We want evertything under our control, while men tend to be more relaxed (at least, here in spain).
    Thanxs for this interesting post!
    *womenmen issues are always interesting!!!!!!

  21. July 16, 2008 7:34 am

    Sakhi, thanks for that comment. Kuch jyada nahi hua!🙂

    Gugin, thats a very interesting observation. Have not looked at it that way.

    Francina, thanks. At times even I think women can be more aggressive than men, but maybe thats just a perception due to my having come in contact with more women than men. I think I also know why women can be more aggressive. In India at least, they have been suppressed a lot and are unable to express their aggression via their professions.

  22. Madhu permalink
    July 16, 2008 12:39 pm

    Nita, I thought you know few things….

    Tell me, what is your full definition for agression….

    Don’t read too many books, they just reveal the autours’ opinions… not yours…

    You lost all the whole plot. Sorry! Pitied😦

    Madhu, I find your comment a little confusing. Have you read my post? I have given my opinion and tried to support it by what I have read like many intelligent people do. Thats been made clear in the note at the bottom.
    My definition of aggression is also clear, if you have bothered to read the post properly.
    Also if you have any sort of coherent argument, let us have it! I am all for discussion! But do avoid getting personal like you have in this comment. It spoils the fun of intelligent discussion. And by the way I plan to read more books than ever!🙂 – Nita

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