Fight or Flight, Testosterone, and Dominance

Jan 13, 09 Fight or Flight, Testosterone, and Dominance

Self-evaluation versus public evaluation
A review of:
Maner, J.K., Miller, S.L., Schmidt N.B., & Eckel, L.A. (2008). Submitting to defeat Social Anxiety: Dominance threat, and decrements in testosterone. Psychological Science. 19, 764-768.
by Michael Morreale

Miller, et al. (2008) have conducted a study to test two hypotheses. One is that a threat to social dominance would be associated with decreased levels of testosterone among individuals who scored high when tested for social anxiety. The other was that this response would be specific to males. The depletion in testosterone levels in humans and other animals is a characteristic of submissive behavior. In essence, they wanted to see if social anxiety serves to shape a response when a male’s dominance is threatened. Their hypotheses seem to be correct.

In the experiment, participants were matched with confederates to compete with them in rigged games causing them to lose by a wide margin. Salivary samples were taken before and after the games, to assess the levels of testosterone present in the body. They had a sample of 58 undergraduate students, 35 women and 23 men with an average age of 18.9. Participants were told the study was an investigation in leadership styles, personality, and hormones. The participant’s level of social anxiety was assessed by completing a social phobia scale.

Decrements in testosterone were found following a defeat in socially anxious men, but not in women. Men who did not score high in social anxiety actually had an increase in testosterone as a response to having their dominance threatened. This trend fits when examined under an evolutionary lens. In terms of reproduction, men have more to gain by achieving a higher place in the hierarchy of dominance than women do. This suggests that social anxiety may have a stronger link with concerns about social dominance in men than in women.

As mentioned by Miller, et al. (2008), submissive strategies can be seen as both adaptive and maladaptive depending on their severity and frequency. It can lead to avoiding potential harm, or additional loss. However, if exaggerated it could place a strain on interpersonal relationships as well as threaten ones status within a group. This is the first study to provide direct evidence that social anxiety shapes responses to social dominance threats. This reflects the trend of socially anxious men to an orientation towards social submission.

As stated by Miller, et al. (2008),the experiment revealed no relationship between social anxiety and base level testosterone. This suggests that social anxiety is linked to the manner in which a person responds to dominance threats as opposed to their base line level of dominance.

To cite this review, please use this reference:
Morreale, M. (2009). Fight or Flight, Testosterone, and Dominance. Psychology Alert (3).