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Male sex hormone levels drop after McCain loss

Republican men may have lost more than their bragging rights in the 2008 election.

A collaborative study by Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and scientists from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor showed that 40 minutes after President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential win, testosterone levels in male supporters of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Bob Barr dropped. Levels of the hormone, which is associated with dominance, did not change in male Obama supporters. Women had constant testosterone levels, regardless of the candidate they supported.  

“We were not out to make a political point with this study,” said Steven Stanton, a postdoctoral researcher at CCN and a co-author of the study. “It’s just that this contest, the 2008 presidential election, is a good place... [to look at] the consequence of winning or losing a dominance contest in terms of testosterone levels.”

Researchers gathered saliva samples from 183 college-aged men and women the day before the election and four separate samples on election night. The first sample on election night was taken as the polls were closing at 8 p.m., and the second sample was taken at approximately 11:30 p.m. when election results were announced. The final two saliva samples were taken in 20-minute intervals following.

Before the election, participants also took a survey about their political views. After learning the election results, they recorded their feelings. Those who voted for a losing candidate reported feeling more submissive, unhappy, unpleasant and controlled by others than those who voted for Obama.

Duke students had different emotional responses to the election outcome.

“I felt like I was part of a win,” said Duke Democrats President Ben Bergmann, a junior.

Duke College Republicans Executive Director Vikram Srinivasan, a senior, said he did not feel less dominant after Obama’s win.

Kevin LaBar, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and a co-author of the study, noted that the study illuminated testosterone’s evolution as a mediator of social dominance in physical combat.

“The fact that you can change testosterone levels just by placing a vote instead of fighting it out yourself is really a novel discovery of how testosterone levels can be changed,” LaBar said.

Although testosterone is now involved in modern men’s conceptual competitions, regulation of the hormone was originally important for survival in physical competitions.

“If you’ve just lost a contest, the drop in the testosterone levels promotes withdrawal from future competition,” Stanton said. “And if you’ve just lost, that’s probably to your benefit.”

He added that men need to be as invested in a distant face-off as they are in face-to-face combat to feel the hormonal effects of a win.

“Humans have a new way of electing leaders but we’re still relying on the same hormone systems,” LaBar said.

Testosterone controls sexual development in men and libido in men and women. It is also associated with aggression.

“The cliches are to some extent pretty accurate,” Stanton said.

The female body may use different hormones to cope with dominance competition, but these mechanisms are still unknown.

Further studies in competition may keep researchers closer to campus, such as Duke’s  rivalry with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, LaBar said.

“[We] want to test this with Duke and UNC basketball fans—that’s the next step,” he said.

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