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Obama election changed voter testosterone

Oct. 22, 2009
Courtesy Duke University
and World Science staff

Young men who vot­ed for the main los­ing can­di­dates in the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion suf­fered a rap­id drop in tes­tos­ter­one lev­els when re­sults came out, a new study in­di­cates. At the same time, men who vot­ed for the win­ner, Barack Obama, had un­usu­ally sta­ble tes­tos­ter­one lev­els.

Fe­males ap­peared un­af­fect­ed in terms of tes­tos­ter­one, ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy, by re­search­ers at Duke Un­ivers­ity and the Un­ivers­ity of Mich­i­gan.

Men who par­ti­ci­pated in the study would nor­mally show a slight night-time drop in tes­tos­ter­one lev­els an­y­way, ac­cord­ing to the group. But on this night, they showed a dra­mat­ic di­ver­gence. Those who vot­ed for the win­ning Dem­o­crat had their lev­els fall less than usual; those who sup­ported Re­pub­li­can John Mc­Cain or Lib­er­tar­ian Bob Barr lost more than nor­mal.

“This is a pret­ty pow­er­ful re­sult,” said Duke neu­ro­sci­ent­ist Kev­in LaBar. “Vot­ers are phy­s­i­o­lo­gi­cal­ly af­fect­ed by hav­ing their can­di­date win or lose an elec­tion.” In a post-e­lec­tion ques­tion­naire, the Mc­Cain and Bar­r back­ers de­scribed feel­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more un­hap­py, sub­mis­sive, un­pleas­ant and con­trolled than the Obama vot­ers.

The find­ings ech­o what oth­er stud­ies have found in men who par­ti­ci­pate di­rectly in an con­test—the win­ner gets a tes­tos­ter­one boost, while the los­er’s tes­tos­ter­one drops. But this study sug­gests that even vi­car­i­ous par­ticipa­t­ion in a “macro-scale” com­pe­ti­tion is enough to change hor­mone lev­els, said Duke post-doctoral sci­ent­ist Ste­ven Stan­ton, the first list­ed au­thor on a pa­per on the find­ings pub­lished on­line in the re­search jour­nal PLOS One this week.

“Vot­ers par­ti­ci­pate in elec­tions both di­rectly by cast­ing their bal­lots, and vi­car­i­ously be­cause they don’t per­son­ally win or lose the elec­tion,” Stan­ton said. “This makes dem­o­crat­ic po­lit­i­cal elec­tions highly un­ique dom­i­nance con­tests.”

Tes­tos­ter­one is a ster­oid hor­mone ma­n­u­fac­tured by the tes­tes that is linked to ag­gres­sion, risk-taking and re­sponses to threats. Wom­en have it too but in much less­er amounts and orig­i­nat­ing from dif­fer­ent sources, their ovaries and ad­re­nal glands, which makes them less prone to ex­pe­ri­ence rap­id tes­tos­ter­one changes fol­low­ing vic­to­ry or de­feat.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors had 183 men and wom­en chew a piece of gum and then spit in­to a sam­ple tube at 8 p.m. as the polls closed on Nov. 4 last year. When the elec­tion re­sults were an­nounced around 11:30 p.m., the sub­jects gave a sec­ond sam­ple, and then two more at 20-minute in­ter­vals. Those sam­ples were then an­a­lyzed for tes­tos­ter­one and re­lat­ed stress hor­mones.

Stan­ton said the sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus sug­gests the tes­tos­ter­one re­sponse to fight­ing and com­pe­ti­tion in males af­fects their fu­ture be­hav­ior in a ben­e­fi­cial way. The los­er chills out a bit so he does­n’t con­tin­ue to press his case and per­haps be­come in­jured. In con­trast, the win­ner may be mo­ti­vat­ed to pur­sue fur­ther gains in so­cial sta­tus. “The re­search on this ex­tends be­yond hu­mans and oth­er pri­mates,” Stan­ton said.

The study al­so looked at lev­els of cor­ti­sol in the spit sam­ples, a stress hor­mone be­hind the “fight or flight” re­sponse, and is to dis­cuss those find­ings in a forth­com­ing pa­per.

The college-aged men in­volved in this study would gen­er­ally have more tes­tos­ter­one than old­er men, so per­haps the study pro­vid­ed a bet­ter op­por­tun­ity to see the dom­i­nance re­sponse at work, LaBar said. “It would be in­ter­est­ing to see how this shakes out in old­er men.”

Hor­mo­nal shifts from vi­car­i­ous com­pe­ti­tion are al­so likely to oc­cur around hotly con­tested col­le­giate foot­ball and bas­ket­ball con­tests, the re­search­ers note. To find out, they plan to re­peat this kind of study on Duke and Un­ivers­ity of North Car­o­li­na bas­ket­ball fans dur­ing one of their games this win­ter. “They’ll spit be­fore the game and spit af­ter the game, and we’ll just see,” LaBar said.


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Young men who voted for the main losing candidates in the 2008 presidential election suffered a rapid drop in testosterone level when results came out, a new study indicates. At the same time, men who voted for the winner, Barack Obama, had unusually stable testosterone levels. Females appeared unaffected in terms of testosterone, according to the study, by researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan. Men who participated in the study would normally show a slight night-time drop in testosterone levels anyway, according to the group. But on this night, they showed a dramatic divergence. Those who voted for the winning Democrat had their levels fall less than normally; those who supported Republican John McCain or Libertarian Robert Barr lost more than would have been expected. “This is a pretty powerful result,” said Duke neuroscientist Kevin LaBar. “Voters are physiologically affected by having their candidate win or lose an election.” In a post-election questionnaire, the McCain and Barr backers described feeling significantly more unhappy, submissive, unpleasant and controlled than the Obama voters. The findings echo what other studies have found in men who participate directly in an contest—the winner gets a testosterone boost, while the loser’s testosterone drops. But this study suggests that even vicarious participation in a “macro-scale” competition is enough to change hormone levels, said Duke post-doctoral scientist Steven Stanton, the first listed author on a paper on the findings published online in the research journal PLOS One this week. “Voters participate in elections both directly by casting their ballots, and vicariously because they don’t personally win or lose the election,” Stanton said. “This makes democratic political elections highly unique dominance contests.” Testosterone is a steroid hormone manufactured by the testes that is linked to aggression, risk-taking and responses to threats. Women have it too but in much lesser amounts and originating from different sources, their ovaries and adrenal glands, which makes them less prone to experience rapid testosterone changes following victory or defeat. The investigators had 183 men and women chew a piece of gum and then spit into a sample tube at 8 p.m. as the polls closed on Nov. 4 last year. When the election results were announced around 11:30 p.m., the subjects gave a second sample, and then two more at 20-minute intervals. Those samples were then analyzed for testosterone and related stress hormones. Stanton said the scientific consensus suggests the testosterone response to fighting and competition in males affects their future behavior in a beneficial way. The loser chills out a bit so he doesn’t continue to press his case and perhaps become injured. In contrast, the winner may be motivated to pursue further gains in social status. “The research on this extends beyond humans and other primates,” Stanton said. The study also looked at levels of cortisol in the spit samples, a stress hormone behind the “fight or flight” response, and is to discuss those findings in a forthcoming paper. The college-aged men involved in this study would generally have more testosterone than older men, so perhaps the study provided a better opportunity to see the dominance response at work, LaBar said. “It would be interesting to see how this shakes out in older men.” Hormonal shifts from vicarious competition are also likely to occur around hotly contested collegiate football and basketball contests, the researchers note. To find out, they plan to repeat this kind of study on Duke and University of North Carolina basketball fans during one of their games this winter. “They’ll spit before the game and spit after the game, and we’ll just see,” LaBar said.