Ain’t no ‘T’ in teamwork, fool: testosterone makes bad collaborators

First published in The Conversation 24 February 2012

Testosterone - the 'bad boy' hormone - influences how we collaborate

We  evolutionary biologists over-enthuse at times about the competitive nature of selection. Observing animals in the wild often compels one to agree with the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that for most of history human life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

But Hobbes didn’t give people the credit they deserve. People in all societies work together to achieve more, collectively, than the sum of their individual efforts. Now, evolutionary biologists and economists are revealing, together, the basis of collaboration and the egocentricity that undermines some teams.

One recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London illustrates the role testosterone plays in our ability to work with others, confirming a common gripe shared by many undergraduate students.

Group work? Again?

University academics love to prescribe group projects. Students should get used to working in teams, we reason, because that’s how most of the workforce operates. Students – at least the hardest-working ones – suspect we prescribe group assignments to cut down on marking. They feel their conscientiousness and effort gets exploited by the more selfish, less organised or simply less engaged students. Continue reading Ain’t no ‘T’ in teamwork, fool: testosterone makes bad collaborators

The true power of love – how we triumph over sexual conflict

Mating Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia), with the female A shorter version of this article first appeared in in the act of devouring the male.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and other Fairfax publications on 14 February 2012 under the headline “The true course of love was never about profit“.

Valentine’s day. What’s not to love about overpriced roses, overbooked restaurants and overstuffed soft toys? It’s the day we render the most multifaceted and untameable of human passions as flat and commercialised as a Kardashian marriage.

Okay, so I’m not so hot on Valentine’s day. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a scientist who studies sexual conflict, the intriguing but somewhat depressing idea that male and female evolutionary interests can never, exactly, coincide.

Early evolutionists took a typically Victorian view of sex: hasty, prudish and patriotic. Lie back and think of England. Do it for the Queen, the Empire, or the perpetuation of the species. Even today our nature documentaries talk about animal sex as though it were a benign tea-party. But sex in the animal world is far messier, more complicated and infinitely more interesting than most people realise.

Some female spiders and insects take a notoriously oral approach to sex – dismembering and consuming the hapless little male. Seed beetle  penises resemble tools of mediaeval torture that inflict internal damage on the female. The female’s pain is the male’s evolutionary gain as the unwholesome experience dissuades her from mating again with another male. Anywhere you turn in the animal world, what’s good for the goose is seldom also good for the gander.

Human coupling and relationships, too, seethe with conflict. We disagree over when to start having sex, how often to have it, and how quickly to fall asleep afterwards. Couples differ on when to have children, how many to have, and who is going to get up in the night when the screaming starts. Economists model the simmering tensions about who does what household jobs, how much money the family needs and how to spend it. And many couples play chicken over whether to stay together, who is going to leave first, and who will take the children.

If all of this is too dark and unfamiliar to you, that is because only a small fraction of these ever-present conflicts breach the surface of our conscious awareness; most relationships feel happy most of the time. But the conflict between our interests, even within the most loving couples, means that people only manage to get together and raise children courtesy of a most remarkable evolutionary adaptation: romantic love.

Tina Turner called it a second-hand emotion, but according to anthropologist and author Helen Fisher it isn’t even an emotion at all:  “It’s a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” Love is so many-splendoured because it does so many jobs. At least six different hormones signal to several dozen different tissues and organs at various times in our romantic lives, arousing us to crave sex, attracting us to healthy and high quality mates, bonding us to our beloved, and all the time helping us to thwart the conflict between us and focus on our common interests – including the difficult business of raising a healthy child. Continue reading The true power of love – how we triumph over sexual conflict

Romantic love and the science behind attraction (Radio interview)

It’s Valentine’s Day, which means that Sex Lab researchers get their annual airing to talk all things sex and attractiveness. Rob Brooks had a great chat with linda Mottram on 702 ABC Sydney yesterday morning, and they have very kindly posted an audio file of the interview.

Rob also appeared on Triple J’s “Hack” – you might want to go to their site and download the show for Monday 13 February.


Testosterone disrupts human collaboration

Humans are incredibly successful collaborators, but we all know from experience that some people work better in teams than others. Anybody who has sought or given a reference for an employee knows that the ability to work collaboratively is probably the most sought-after property in most job searches. And being able to work collaboratively requires an ability to put aside one’s own narrow ambition in order to ensure the best outcome for the group or team.

For some time, researchers have suggested that the bad-boy of human hormones – testosterone – reduces an individual’s tendency to be a good collaborator. Testosterone has a great many functions, but many of them involve motivating us to dominate others or at least compete against them. The link between testosterone and cooperation may be because testosterone diminishes and individual’s motivation or ability to collaborate, but it might just as easily come through other effects that testosterone has on motivation and performance in domains only slightly related to collaboration.

Which is why I enjoyed a paper recently published online by Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, series B. (Testosterone disrupts human collaboration by increasing egocentric choices, by Nicholas D. Wright and colleagues at University College London, London School of Economics and Aarhus University, Denmark.

By administering testosterone to some subjects, and a placebo to others, and then tracking the effect of collaboration on a problem-solving task, they showed that testosterone markedly reduced subjects’ collaborative performance. That happened because, according to the authors,

“testosterone engendered more egocentric choices, manifest in an overweighting of one’s own relative to others’ judgements during joint decision-making.”

We often think only of men when considering the effects of testosterone on behaviour, but many of the functions of testosterone are shared in women. All the subjects in this study were women. It’s hard, when thinking about hormones and behaviour not to slip into stereotypes, but the tendency of the testosterone-supplemented women to overweight their own judgments and discount those of their collaborators sounds awfully familiar.


The evolutionary significance of sport

Could this seething throng of German soccer fans be the audience at a male lek?

I’m always excited when scientists try to explain large, complex areas of human endeavour in evolutionary terms. I’m doubly excited when those areas are infused with cultural, social and economic influences because there is no danger of getting into the tired old business of separating evolved genes from the various forms of nurture. In Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll, I tried to take this kind of approach – especially with rock music.

Today’s version of the journal Evolutionary Psychology contains an intriguing paper about the evolution of sport. American biologist Michael P. Lombardo argues that “sport has evolved to function like a non-human mating display arena, commonly called a lek, like those found in birds such as the sage grouse of the western USA.”

Lombardo argues, however, that athletic contests allow men to show off their physical prowess and behaviours important in both cooperation and conflict. The key here is that men are displaying to other men, much more than they are displaying to women.

I don’t know that I buy into all of the arguments, and I am certain that, like rock music and other big cultural phenomena, there are many evolutionary functions that all find some expression in sport. Any explanation of sport will have to explain the roles of sportswomen and female spectators too. But it’s an interesting idea and one well worth studying further. Perhaps the NSW Waratahs might wish to grant me a season pass so I can study the issue more closely?