When women simply act as if they are powerful, this, apparently, is enough to cause a measurable physiological change in their bodies, and a substantial one at that. Acting like a boss (literally — we’ll get to that) increased women’s testosterone levels by 10 percent on average, according to a fascinating new paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Testosterone is typically associated with men, and for obvious reasons. Men produce 10 to 20 times more of it than women, and in men healthy levels of the hormone is linked to things like a higher sex drive and better sperm production. But it’s also thought to play a role in the way men behave, in that men with higher testosterone levels tend to act more aggressively than men with lower levels of the hormone. But this new research poses an interesting question: Do men act powerful because they have more testosterone — or do men have more testosterone precisely because men are typically conditioned to act more powerfully?
To find out, researchers at the University of Michigan asked a group of men and women to perform a little scene in which they played the role of the boss, and the time had come to fire someone. They did two variations on this scene, on two separate days. Once, they were told to get mean about it; another time, they were to fire the poor (if imaginary) employee with a little more compassion. In this second scenario, they were told to “be nice” and were instructed to act as if they felt a little “unsure about what [they were] doing,” Sari van Anders, the lead study author, told HealthDay.
Van Anders and her colleagues also measured the actors’ testosterone (via their spit) before and after their monologues. Their results showed that both scenarios increased testosterone levels in both men and women, but the increase in women was particularly striking. For men, the spike was smallish, around 3 or 4 percent on average. But the women in their study saw their testosterone levels increase 10 percent on average.
Time for the usual caveats: It’s just one study, and not a huge one at that, so let’s not get overly excited here about what it all means. But it does serve to poke a tiny hole in the “widely held idea that the sex difference in testosterone is the exclusive result of biological differences,” Robert Josephs, a University of Texas at Austin psychology professor, told HealthDay. (Josephs was not involved in the study, but characterized the findings as “amazing.”) The social environment may play a bigger role here than was once thought.