To the Victors Go the Orgasms, Says Study on Post-Election Desire
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Basketball games, elections and other head-to-head contests seem to affect the testosterone of people who care about them. Some studies have found that testosterone production goes down in fans of the losing side (for example, among male McCain supporters after the 2008 Presidential vote). And others found the hormone goes up among supporters of a winning team. Now this paper in last month's Evolution and Human Behavior claims to have found a practical consequence: After U.S. elections, it found, Internet searches for porn are more frequent in states that voted for the winners.
The authors, Patrick and Charlotte Markey, want to show that human beings can be included in a general theory about ups and downs in testosterone. First proposed 20 years ago by the great ornithologist John C. Wingfield and his colleagues, this "challenge hypothesis" proposes that males in some species need high testosterone when they have to win a mate or defend a territory, but then have to throttle back in order to keep a monogamous pair bond and/or spend energy in caring for offspring. In these creatures, a "challenge" relevant to breeding makes their testosterone go up. On the other hand, in a species like the house mouse, where fathers are neither mated nor involved with caring for the young, testosterone levels jump at sexual maturity and then stay steady.
Human males aren't particularly monogamous and aren't inevitably involved in childcare. But a few years back John Archer proposed that people, like some birds, do have a life-cycle in which they need high testosterone for some tasks (impressing chicks) and less for others (raising chicks). Hence, the human version of the challenge hypothesis: Men's testosterone will rise in response to sexual arousal and to competition.
Which bring us back to post-election porn-surfing. The usual way to measure the effect of an election on testosterone levels is to collect spit and measure its hormone content. The Markeys ingeniously suggest using Google's search-term data instead. They looked at the 2004 and 2008 Presidential elections, and at the 2006 midterms. In 2004, they write, post-election searches on the ten most common porn words were higher in states carried by President Bush. In 2006, when Democrats won the Senate and House, porn searches went up in the "blue" states instead. Ditto for 2008, when the Democrats won the White House.
Maybe that means what the Markeys say it means—that getting off on election success gave happy male partisans a testosterone upsurge, which then made them want to get off in other ways. But there are a lot of alternative explanations. We don't know, after all, which voters in those states were porn-seeking. And if testosterone falls in response to your team's loss, but rises in response to sexual arousal, then porn-hunting could be a form of self-medication for losers, rather than a sign that the winners are getting jiggy. (Consider the example of the man whom Jimmy Carter considers our greatest ex-president: In September 1966, Carter lost a race for Governor of Georgia, and he was "very distressed" about it. His daughter Amy, 15 years younger than her elder brother, was born a year later.)
This interpretation might jibe with the Obama-McCain study I mentioned, which found that, while McCain voters' testosterone dropped after his loss, the Obama voters' didn't rise, but just held steady.
On the other hand, perhaps pornography searches occur more often on busy news days, because people spend more time on their computers looking for word about that toss-up Senate seat until 2 a.m. Or perhaps it's simply impossible to infer anything hormonal from this information. The interaction of testosterone and the conscious mind is a two-way process, after all: In this study, sports fans' testosterone went up only when they felt their team had deserved to win, not when the victory came through dumb luck.
Still, the data are what they are, and they're interesting. It suggests, for one thing, that porn sites might want to ready themselves for next month's red-state tidal wave.
Markey, P., & Markey, C. (2010). Changes in pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections: an examination of the challenge hypothesis Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.06.004
Wingfield, J., Hegner, R., Dufty, Jr., A., & Ball, G. (1990). The "Challenge Hypothesis": Theoretical Implications for Patterns of Testosterone Secretion, Mating Systems, and Breeding Strategies The American Naturalist, 136 (6) DOI: 10.1086/285134
ARCHER, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30 (3), 319-345 DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.12.007
Gonzalez-Bono, E., Salvador, A., Ricarte, J., Serrano, M., & Arnedo, M. (2000). Testosterone and attribution of successful competition Aggressive Behavior, 26 (3), 235-240 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2337(2000)26:33.0.CO;2-L
Stanton, S., Beehner, J., Saini, E., Kuhn, C., & LaBar, K. (2009). Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters' Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election PLoS ONE, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007543