Nature and Nurture

This week it’s all about Nature Versus Nurture

First we saw this evidence that women on the Pill — a big dose of estrogen — find themselves attracted to men that would not be as attractive without that hormonal push. Not only does the Pill quell the natural ebb and flow of a woman’s monthly mentality; it actually inhibits women’s ability to interpret male pheromones.

This effect gets magnified by the fact that courtship is all about the combination of pheromones — “chemistry” — and behavioral cues. Women naturally experience an emotional and mental shift throughout the course of the month. When women quash that hormonal flux with a stabilizing hormone super-dose we lose the peaks and troughs.

Unlike their sisters in the animal kingdom, human females don’t openly advertise their ovulation. But even without a human version of the baboon’s bright pink behind, signs of fertility sneak out, according to several studies. Subconsciously, women dress more provocatively and men find them prettier when it’s prime time for conception. And a report from the University of New Mexico demonstrates that the cyclic signs have economic consequences.

Psychologist Geoffrey Miller and colleagues tapped the talent at local gentlemen’s clubs and counted tips made on lap dances. Dancers made about $70 an hour during their peak period of fertility, versus about $35 while menstruating and $50 in between.

Women on the pill averaged $37 (and had no performance peak) versus $53 for women off-pill. The contraceptive produces hormonal cues indicating early pregnancy, not an enticing target for a would-be suitor. Birth control could lead to many thousands of dollars lost every year.

Libby suggests we “consider the pill’s trade-offs: Sure, you can have sex pretty much whenever you want, but you’re seemingly less likely to be in the mood, less able to capture male attention, and when you do finally hook up, it’s with a guy you probably don’t even like!”

The second hormone news this week concerns testosterone. Booth b-school at UChicago provides hard evidence both that testosterone levels directly govern relationships to risk and that that governance comes as a function of thresholds. Self-selecting students who come to Booth’s monolithic investment bank-focused program end up leaving in two groups: most men go into investment banking, while just over a third of women enter the same field.

Someone with a testosterone level of 150 will not be more risk-seeking than someone w/ a level of 140, but both will be infinitely more likely to take a high-pay, high-risk position than someone w/ testosterone at under 100. This binary “threshold” function contributes hugely to the idea that men and women simply seek different exposures to risk.

If most women come under a threshold that most men exceed then obviously the risk-seeking behavior of the two groups will fall into statistically-significant differential groups. I don’t blame women for not chasing the hedge fund lifestyle, but I do wonder how many women sought a highly “competitive” program and then  became frustrated at themselves for deciding midway through that they are more risk averse than they thought.  This decision is not unique to women, but the statistics suggest that women decide against the risks more than twice as often as do men.

dali girl windowTaking artificial hormones masks people’s ability to get an objective grip on what we’re feeling. Important here to note that it’s not just women who go through monthly cycles, or who struggle against risk-averse instincts at work; studies suggest that actually men are more prone to cyclic mood shifts than are women, but because the shifts are not physical men are less inclined to notice or track these moods.  And ask any man in this economy whether he’d trade part of his salary for job security and it’s quickly obvious that we all find ourselves on some deck of this same boat.

Knowing that a given bandwagon carries certain hormonal implications, we should provide for these shifts. If we’re not on the Pill, we should realize that we’ll be quicker to temper that last day, and accordingly treat ourselves to deep breaths. If on the Pill, we should realize that we’ll likely find ourselves drawn differently to certain male traits, and experiment with dosages before committing to a man we may well find less attractive when we enter that baby-making window.

Similarly, if we’re in a drag race program where only the most risk-friendly survive, we should consider how much we really enjoy risk, and whether we’d be happier at, say, Harvard, an equally prestigious but more leadership-oriented, less bank-focused (and therefore less risk-dependent) program.

What bothers me about the way these studies are presented and advertised is the underlying familiar assumption that women are helpless to resist. Yes, the nature of hormones blinds us to their effects on our bodies. But women in this year 2009 are sophisticated actors with all of this knowledge under our belts. Perhaps I find my eyes welling up at Hallmark commercials (or, more appropriately, media re politics and the economy) during a given week, but I’m aware enough of the science behind it that I’m not overwhelmed. I don’t blame my body. It’s simply not about being one sex or another, but rather about the choices we make within those physical bounds.

I’m not sure that we do properly compensate for the effects we should be sophisticated enough to anticipate.  With regards to the estrogen studies, I suggested last week that perhaps this “estrogen effect” has contributed to our growing divorce rate. It makes sense that with rising Pill use, prevalent, temporary birth control that stops at marriage and influences attraction would lead to widespread divorce.

Add to that the statistical evidence that it’s women who initiate most splits, and it seems that the link between widespread Pill use at courtship age and rising divorce rates is not as tenuous as we’d like to think.  Even if we should by now be in a position to anticipate changes over time, we are not acting to create the appropriate cushions to ease those anticipated blows as they come.

This is mostly interesting from an academic perspective. But for women I’d draw the same conclusion I always draw: Pay attention to the factors. Be sophisticated about decisions. And enter every relationship — as much with hormones and significant others as with higher education — with an understanding of who you are and what you want.

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