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In a new understanding of the term power grab, researchers have shown that the supporters of a political candidate literally have their power taken from them after they lose an election. In a new study by Steven J. Stanton and colleagues in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, researchers asked 163 Republican and Democratic voters (57 of whom were men) to provide saliva samples both before and after the 2008 election between John McCain and Barack Obama. What the researchers determined was that Republican men showed significant reductions in testosterone after they learned that their candidate had lost the election.
These results have been demonstrated before in other contexts and provide further evidence that the human male is an especially bizarre organism. Previous research has shown that testosterone levels in males will decline significantly if the sports team they have identified with fails to achieve victory. This reaction is probably associated with the evolved trait seen in many primates where testosterone will decline after losing a fight with another male. Humans have simply extended this reaction to the defeat of a group that they identify with. Given this reaction with sporting events, Stanton et al. were curious as to whether a similar result would occur after a contest that actually matters.
In the present study Republican and Democratic supporters were provided with a take-home saliva collection kit and asked to save samples at 8pm (before results were announced) and again at around 11:40 pm, 12:00 am, and 12:20 am after one of the candidates was declared the winner. In results identical to the way males would react to sporting events, the researchers found that a similar pattern held among political losers:
While past studies have shown that men's testosterone levels differentially change in response to winning or losing an interpersonal dominance contest, the present study provides novel evidence showing that vicarious victory and defeat via democratic elections has similar physiological consequences for male voters as do interpersonal dominance contests.
Republican males had reduced testosterone after losing election.
Image from Stanton et al. (2009).
The researchers predicted that Republican women would not have a similar reduction, and indeed their results confirmed this. Based on self-reports, Republican women wanted their candidate to win just as badly as the men. However, they showed no significant physiological response. The researchers suggest that perhaps female testosterone is more difficult to record in women and doesn't have the same rapid release that males experience, which may have influenced the results. Nevertheless, previous research with women hasn't demonstrated the same decline in testosterone levels after competitive activities.
The results suggest that males are physiologically emasculated after they have lost a competition even if they weren't directly involved. This effect suggests a reduced motivation to compete as a way of accepting the outcome.
Since losing voters reported greater submissiveness, we speculate that losing males, who also experienced testosterone decrements, might have been less motivated to engage in dominance behavior after the election. Moreover, since the dominance hierarchy shift following a presidential election is stable for 4 years, the stress of having one's political party lose control of executive policy decisions could plausibly lead to continued testosterone suppression in males.
The authors further speculate that a similar reduction in testosterone may also apply in the case of business or union negotiation failures, changes in international power relations (such as losing a war), or economic strength. In such cases it may be that males show a similar reduced testosterone level while women do not. While there are slightly more women nationwide than men, males represent nearly 85% of the members of Congress (and an even higher percentage of business leaders). Given men's highly fluctuating hormonal state, perhaps it's unwise to have so many emotionally unstable individuals in positions of economic or political power. Nevertheless, the results of this study go a long way to explaining the insane temper tantrums that currently serve as political dialogue by Republican opponents of Barack Obama. It's not just that they're sore losers, they're chemically imbalanced.
ResearchBlogging.orgStanton, 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
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