Why are men competitive? Why are men at the top of all professions? Male/female brain difference.

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The answer is simple: testosterone.  Testosterone is the hormone that makes men compete with each other.  After all, in the animal/bird world, it is overwhelmingly the male that competes with other males to get to mate with the female.  Added to this we have the single mindedness of the male; his simpler brain that concentrates on one thing at a time, means when a male decides to do something, he does not let nappy changing get in his way.  Females may well decide they want to climb up the greasy pole, but our inter-networked brains and natural desire to nurture and co-operate means the majority of us are just not competitive enough to do the necessary to get there.  There are notable exceptions, of course.

There are very many studies showing that testosterone rises in males when competing.  A review of studies published in 2006 covered many studies1 and these found that there was a small anticipatory rise in testosterone before sports matches.  During the match the testosterone rose further and after the match, the winner’s testosterone shot up.  This rise in testosterone also happened in the fans watching the match.  One of the studies reviewed was on a pair of basketball teams analysed pre and post match.  One team won convincingly, and their testosterone rose predictably.  The other team won narrowly and their the testosterone did not rise.  This study also took into account psychological variables and found that winning was attributed to personal effort and skill whereas losing was attributed to external factors such as bad luck, ref’s decisions and so on, which seemed to buffer the individual and reduce the reduction in testosterone.

This review found that parenting lowered the testosterone in males, which is possibly a good thing given than high testosterone males tend to be extroverts with a range of characteristics such as more anti-social behaviour, taking more risks and being more promiscuous.  Challenges to the status of a high testosterone person matters more and will influence subsequent behaviour. Apparently this all starts at a relatively early age.

I attended a Human Given‘s course taken by Dr Anne Moir and we were shown several film clips of experiments on  children’s behaviour to back up the various studies done on male/female differences.  The children (aged about 8 years) were divided into a group of boys and a group of girls and given various tasks.  For example, each group was given a pile of Lego bricks and told to build something.  The group of girls co-operated together well and built a house within the allotted time.  The boys decided to build a tower as high as possible – we could see them regularly checking out the height of their tower in comparison with the girls’ construction.  The boys fought with each other, one boy was excluded from the group entirely and eventually the tower fell over.  So at the end of the allotted time, all they had to show was Lego bricks scattered over the floor.

Testosterone is the hormone that drives us to want to win and boosts our confidence.  As has already been mentioned, women do have testosterone in variable amounts, both individually and during the monthly cycle, however, men have 10 -20 times more testosterone than females which is not subject to monthly fluctuations and they make the majority of it in their testes.  Women make some in their ovaries, but the majority is made by the adrenal glands2.  When testosterone rises in men, it is pleasurable since it is linked to a surge in dopamine, the neurotransmitter of positive expectation,  so competition is pleasurable.  Because most female testosterone is made by the adrenals, when testosterone rises for us, so do levels of the stress hormones, leading to increased anxiety, stress or depression. When women compete and win, our testosterone does rise, but we do not get the euphoric high that men do and if the adrenals continue to pump out testosterone, cortisol levels rise too.  So competition is not as pleasant for females since they also feel stressed.  Of course, this has implications at school.  Continuous assessment suits girls more than boys; exams suit boys more than girls.

To sum up, here is a quote from the handout given out by Dr Moir.

The more testosterone you have, the more confident you will appear – even over-confident or at least never admitting that you might not know something or be wrong.  Ignorance implies weakness, which is something males are evolutionarily designed not to show, especially to other men, who might be a threat to them.  It is a necessary part of the male survival mechanism.  This is different in females whose survival depended on support from others.  She is less confident, less self-assertive, at least in the outside world. 3

So there we have it.  Now there is one other reason why men rise to the top of all professions, and that is to do with talking.  Who talks most in public, men or women?  Who is listened and given credence to most, men or women?  The next blog will cover this.

  1. Archer J.  Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis.  Neuroscience and biobehavioural reviews 30 (2006) 319-345. []
  2. See the book Androgens in health and disease.  Ed Carrie Bagatelle and William Bremner p. 283 []
  3. Dr Anne Moir has published a couple of books: Why men don’t iron: the science of gender studies.  And Brainsex: the real difference between men and women. []

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