Human biology is typically studied within the framework of sex (evolved, innate factors) rather than gender (sociocultural factors), despite some attention to nature/nurture interactions. Testosterone is an exemplar of biology studied as natural difference: men’s higher testosterone is typically seen as an innate “sex” difference. However, our experiment demonstrates that gender-related social factors also matter, even for biological measures. Gender socialization may affect testosterone by encouraging men but not women toward behaviors that increase testosterone. This shows that research on human sex biology needs to account for gender socialization and that nurture, as well as nature, is salient to hormone physiology. Our paper provides a demonstration of a novel gender→testosterone pathway, opening up new avenues for studying gender biology.Abstract
Testosterone is typically understood to contribute to maleness and masculinity, although it also responds to behaviors such as competition. Competition is crucial to evolution and may increase testosterone but also is selectively discouraged for women and encouraged for men via gender norms. We conducted an experiment to test how gender norms might modulate testosterone as mediated by two possible gender→testosterone pathways. Using a novel experimental design, participants (trained actors) performed a specific type of competition (wielding power) in stereotypically masculine vs. feminine ways. We hypothesized in H1 (stereotyped behavior) that wielding power increases testosterone regardless of how it is performed, vs. H2 (stereotyped performance), that wielding power performed in masculine but not feminine ways increases testosterone. We found that wielding power increased testosterone in women compared with a control, regardless of whether it was performed in gender-stereotyped masculine or feminine ways. Results supported H1 over H2: stereotyped behavior but not performance modulated testosterone. These results also supported theory that competition modulates testosterone over masculinity. Our findings thus support a gender→testosterone pathway mediated by competitive behavior. Accordingly, cultural pushes for men to wield power and women to avoid doing so may partially explain, in addition to heritable factors, why testosterone levels tend to be higher in men than in women: A lifetime of gender socialization could contribute to “sex differences” in testosterone. Our experiment opens up new questions of gender→testosterone pathways, highlighting the potential of examining nature/nurture interactions and effects of socialization on human biology.