Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men

An intriguing new long-term study of Filipino men has discovered that becoming a father lowers a man’s testosterone level. More specifically, what really drops male testosterone is the amount of time spent caring for children; men who spent three hours or more per day caring for a child had significantly less testosterone than those dads who were less involved with their children. It’s not that men with lower testosterone were “naturally” more inclined to be caregivers in the first place; based on the voluminous longitudinal data, it’s the act of caring itself that reduced testosterone significantly.

An otherwise reasonable New York Times piece on the study begins with the somber warning, “This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.” But as several researchers in the article point out, this is actually great news for dads—and for all men. One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity, and that any attempt to encourage us to take on a nurturing, tender role is destined to end in failure. The “Caveman Cult” crowd, which includes a great many popular writers on gender, suggests that female physiology is optimized for caregiving while male physiology is optimized for conquest. And when pressed to cite the chief factor in this supposed male inability to care for children, these defenders of traditional gender roles almost invariably cite the overarching influence of testosterone.

What this exciting new study shows is that men are far more biologically malleable than we had previously realized. Our male bodies are not obstacles to empathy or tenderness. Indeed, once we make the commitment to become active fathers to our children, it seems our hormones naturally shift to help sustain us in this all-important work of caregiving. As it turns out, the claim that women are “just built to be more nurturing” (so we might as well let them do the bulk of the nurturing and let guys off the hook) is baseless. The real truth is that we are hardwired to be adaptable, built to have seasons in our lives of both public ambition and domestic tenderness. Far from being an obstacle to our humanity, it turns out our best-known hormone is love’s surprisingly accommodating ally .

—Photo Sukanto Debnath/Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Men can become nurturers, yes. I think the point of evo psych folks is that there are more impediments to men adopting that role than for women who are nurturers by default. Men have to make a rational decision whether to adopt the role or not. When you look at these roles in the aggregate you’ll see that women adopt more of a nurturing role than men.

  2. I’m generally skeptical about conclusions reached regarding how we are (or are not) “hardwired”. Testosterone’s roles in the body are pretty complex (in both “male” and “female” bodies), and it turns out that changes in testosterone alone don’t always skew to changes in behavior–other hormones that have interplay with testosterone are really important.

    One book that goes into this a little is The Trouble with Testosterone:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=9h-lBfI7U-QC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

    So, while it’s welcome news, I guess, that taking care of children might lower men’s testosterone, it’s hard to know what it really means, behaviorally, as a consequence…

  3. The results of the study are not new. Several studies have found similar results before. What is new is the attention it is getting.

    Secondly, the study actually supports the prevailing view that the influence of testosterone interferes men’s ability to care for children, which kind of supports the view that women (who tend to have less testosterone) are built for nurturing. The study shows that a hormone that makes people some what impulsive is not useful when caring for children, and so the male body decreases the hormone level when around children for an extended period of time.

    A major oversight of the study is following up to see how long the decrease lasts and whether it fluctuates depending on the situation the men are in. Do their levels go back up when they go to work? Do they change as the child gets older? How does it impact the man’s health?

    Thirdly, the study smacks down the prevailing feminist view of fatherhood as total sexist bunk.

    • Another recent study found that men who keep up their male contacts outside of the family have higher testosterone than those that don’t.

    • What do you mean by, “the study smacks down the prevailing feminist view of fatherhood as total sexist bunk”?

      Feminism has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to fatherhood. Because of the feminist movement, today’s young fathers are taking much more nurturing responsibility for their children than their fathers and grandfathers ever did.

      • The feminist argument that men and women are essentially interchangeable is debunked here.

        This study suggests that lower testosterone = better suited to care for children. Conclusion? Women, because of having lower testosterone than men, including fathers, are suited the best to care for children. This article missed that elephant in the room.

        • YOURE A DUMBASSSS! says:

          LOL

          Feminism NEVER was/is about how men and women are “interchangeable”. Ever.
          Feminism is purely about NOT punishing women for being born. Simple.
          The levels of testosterone don’t necessarily determine how capable one is to nurture, anyone with an iq over 2 can observe that what really goes on behind caregiving is a person’s state of mind and personal goals.
          You can be as physiologically ready for caregiving all you want, but if rearing a child isn’t in your priorities, IT’S NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

          I can tell you now, if you reversed this study, you would find the same can be said for women. People’s hormones fluctuate appropriately to suit their lifestyle.
          There’s a reason why humans are the most successful animals around; and that reason isn’t because our bodies are meant for one thing and one thing only. ;D

          Obviously, there are physiological differences (men are taller, women are less hairy, men have more testosterone generally, women have breasts…some men do, too), no one is arguing against that.
          The point of Feminism is to allow women to take control of THEIR lives, not have their fates be determined by men. Caregiving has nothing to do with a person’s independence.

          Educate yourself before you start spouting off your psychobabble, mmkay? ;)

          • “Feminism NEVER was/is about how men and women are “interchangeable”. “

            Then, you know nothing about one of feminism’s cornerstone arguments, that “gender is a social construct.” In other words, men and women are interchangeable, except for societal influence.

            Now, that’s some serious feminist psychobabble that this study debunks.

        • The study doesn’t say that the lower testosterone levels made them better nurturers. Just that the act of nurturing produced lower testosterone levels.

          The act of cuddling produces spikes in oxytocin. If one person gets a higher spike than the other, it doesn’t make them a better cuddler.

          • Wow, I am commenting on a really old argument and just noticed. *facepalm*

            New Study: Women who spend too much time reading and commenting on the internet shown to pay less attention to detail.

      • Feminism has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to fatherhood. Because of the feminist movement, today’s young fathers are taking much more nurturing responsibility for their children than their fathers and grandfathers ever did.
        Which makes it all the more a shame that they then turn a blind eye to the very young fathers who are pushed out of their children’s lives by what almost amounts to legalized kidnapping…

  4. If men were not hardwired to care for children, there would not be all the pain caused by women and the courts excluding fathers, men would just walk away unscathed.

    Any piece of research that punches a hole in the scumbag ideology that teaches that we are not needed is good research!

  5. I think this was an interesting study but I think you have to be skeptical about drawing PC conclusions. As one commenter pointed out, this study could suggest that testosterone makes men less nurturing, which supports the idea that men are less suited to child rearing. Another possibility that no one has mentioned is that many male mammals will attack and kill any young that they come across so that the mothers will go into estrus again and be ready to mate. In mammals that are social (e.g., lions) some mechanism is needed to reduce male aggression toward young so that the males will not kill their own young. Dropping the male’s testosterone is one way this happens. In other words, assuming that fatherhood lowers testosterone for some evolutionary purpose (as opposed to it being a side effect of stress or sleep deprivation, for example) , the reason could involve reducing male aggression toward young and have nothing to do with our paleolithic forebears being willing to help mom sweep the cave or changing their fair share of the stone age equivalent of diapers.

    • As one commenter pointed out, this study could suggest that testosterone makes men less nurturing, which supports the idea that men are less suited to child rearing.

      Ugh, no, you can’t take a study’s results and reverse them! The study did not conclude that the lower testosterone levels made men better nurturers than they were pre-fatherhood. The study concluded that the act of nurturing produced a lower testosterone level. That’s it. NOTHING about their ability or inability, or the quality of the nurturing.

      Women’s testosterone levels dip and spike throughout their lives (indeed, within a monthly cycle). Testosterone plays a role in aggression (by which I don’t mean violence, but the opposite of passivity) and decision-making. Saying a woman’s testosterone spikes at Point B does not mean she becomes a better decision-maker or a better action-taker than she was at Point A. She may be more aggressive, or may make more impulsive decisions, but that does not equate to Better or Worse.

  6. I like to think this study shows men are hardwired to be faithful. Lower testosterone should mean a lower sex drive. Not enough to make men not want sex at all, but enough to live with less sex while the children are small. After all, if you already have a child you’re around most of the time, the best way to increase your evolutionary fitness is to stick around and take care of it, not keep having more kids.

  7. The argument presented here is baseless, and self-defeating, and misandristic.

    Starting with the misandry:

    I am pretty sick of the incessant misandry feminist drivel in statements such as these:

    “One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity. ”

    Promiscuity? I read somewhere that you can’t measure promiscuity? Evidently, per feminists only men can be promiscuous. It’s wrong to suggest that a woman is.

    The baseless and self-defeating premise ends up claiming (unintentionally) that women are naturally better suited to care for children than men. How? It claims that men with lower testosterone are better suited to care for children.

    So, humans with lower testosterone are better suited to care for children than ones with higher testosterone. Since women have lower testosterone than men, including fathers, they are STILL better suited to care for children than men.

    The reality is that men and women do overlap but in complimentary ways; we simply aren’t interchangeable as this silliness suggests. There is a reason that nature gave children one male and one female parent, not two of one sex.

    • Feminism did not give us the “great enduring myth” that men are violent and promiscuous. That myth has been pushed by western media, culture, and politics in order to oppress men, just as it has oppressed women for centuries. True feminism is not the “man hating” feminism that the media portrays; rather, it is an affirming outlook on gender seeking to liberate women (who are particularly oppressed by most cultures) from arbitrary roles they are forced to fill in society.

      You also misinterpret the research. It does not say that men who have lower testosterone are better caregivers. The research shows that men who care for children have lower testosterone. Those are two very different things. The former suggests that one with less testosterone is a better caregiver, even if the testosterone levels were compared among men. The latter is what the science proves: that the act of caring for children reduces testosterone. Nothing there about how men are better than women at child rearing or vice versa. Your knee-jerk reaction to anything you feel is “feminism” is nauseating, especially since you obviously have a beef with it.

      • “Feminism did not give us the “great enduring myth” that men are violent and promiscuous.”
        You haven’t been exposed to feminist theory and writings. Feminism casts men as the abusers and women as the victims, which is the foundational concept behind VAWA.
        “True feminism is not the “man hating” feminism that the media portrays”
        Feminism’s man-hating is not a media portrayal. It can be seen here and on other feminist blogs every single day. From the mouths of feminists themselves. Unless you are stating that the feminist articles here are not true feminism?
        “You also misinterpret the research. It does not say that men who have lower testosterone are better caregivers.”
        I interpreted nothing, only commented on Hugo’s interpretation and application.
        Hugo is the one trying to prove a point about men being wired to be nurturers because of lowered testosterone.
        “Your knee-jerk reaction to anything you feel is “feminism” is nauseating, especially since you obviously have a beef with it.”

        Sorry, I react that way to hate and prejudice regardless of the source, be it from feminism, the MRA movement, whomever.

  8. My personal observations are that most men are great fathers. They bring a slightly different energy to parenting than do women. My personal opinion is that world would be a better place if more fathers took on the primary parent role and more women would get out of the way and find something else to do with their energy.

    I agree that testosterone’s role in human beings is a tad more complex than what the article claims. What the study didn’t look at was if testosterone levels decreased when the men were caring for children who were not their own. My guess would be that the testosterone levels would also decrease in those cases. What this means is that men are just as nurturing and caring about the folks (and kids) they interact with regularly as women. It says nothing about their propensity for monogamy/fidelity or women’s propensity for monogamy/fidelity.

  9. The Bad Man says:

    Interesting study, but there is still the false perception that testosterone causes violence and bad parenting. Where is the evidence of this assertion?

    Another study also showed an increase in progesterone among men who had close relationships with their infants. This is the hormone responsible for the parent-child bond and it shows the importance of forming a close relationship with infants. When fathers are marginalized from the lives of their children, that bond is weakened and further exasperates the problem of fatherlessnes.

  10. Really don’t understand why people keep arguing this point. Women will simply never see men as qualified as they are to nurture and raise children until we start carrying them inside our bodies for 9 months and breastfeeding. “Feminism” per say never said men were BAD parents it just says that to be a responsible one you have to do your share of the baby sitting. Arguing that men are REQUIRED for the developmental growth of children is a fact that women simply don’t have to accept, and arguing otherwise is a waste of time, because they wont.

  11. Anonymous Male says:

    Once again I find a GMP article where the title of the piece does not really match the content of the article. The whole point of the “hardwired” metaphor is the idea that testosterone is some kind of independent driving force that makes men a certain way, that biology shapes society not vice versa.

    What the study actually shows about testosterone is the opposite, that it is AFFECTED by the environment. It’s affected by the decisions that people make, the jobs they have, the social roles they play, etc. As someone else pointed out, testosterone’s relationship with other hormones, physiological conditions, and the environment is incredibly complicated. It’s connection with aggression is fairly well documented, but the relationship is not simple cause and effect. (For example, testosterone levels in men change the most AFTER a fistfight, more than before or during.) Basically, the study and Hugo’s article say it’s more like software than hardware.

    Hugo’s approach also seems a little contradictory compared with previous articles. On the one hand, there is the argument that biological determinism is overstated, “natural” explanations for male behavior are ideologically driven, and we are overwhelmingly products of our culture. On the other hand, when it comes to nurturing roles, men are of course naturally nurturing, the biology says so, our culture is just getting in the way of what men are biologically set up to do.

    Maybe he’s saying men are culturally programmed to be violent and aggressive but biologically programmed to be nurturing?

  12. Slate has a good article about how this study is being reported and discussed in ways that support politically correct, but not necessarily scientifically correct ideas
    http://www.slate.com/id/2303809/

  13. yeah every father should take good care of their children.. i love this article and nice page men. keep it up!

  14. There is a very serious problem here. Proponents of gender equality, including me, have tried hard to persuade male partners/husbands to share domestic tasks (to do house work & nurture children), in addition to their earning a living. This is done on fairness basis, as women have worked to earn income while doing house work and nurturing children. Suddenly, a study popd up showing that men who are involved in nurturing children produce less testosterone and as such could be perceived as beta males and sexually less interesting to their wives/girl partners. Some of these wives/girl partners may then justify this fact to get involved in extramarital affairs and cuckold their husbands. Some husbands/male partners themselves, perceiving that they are now less of a male, may support or even encourage their wives’ affairs, while other husbands simply get cheated behind their backs.
    What should I do now? Continuing to “preach” to men to hep with household and nurturing work? The men partners/husbands who learn this fact will accuse me that I pave the way for cuckoldry. More importantly, my conscience would not allow me to do that. I am all for liberating women from oppression/exploitation, but I also want to defend men from oppression/exploitation.

  15. So if you are a competitive body builder or professional athlete, stay away from kids.
    Good information. Ps. I don’t really see too many massive Filipino men – check out their basketball league. So maybe all this is discussion is based on a false premise that Filipino men are exactly like all other men.

Trackbacks

  1. […] have a brief blog post up at Good Men Project on the new fathers-and-testosterone study: Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men. […]

  2. […] Schwyzer on the new study that found that caring for children lowered men’s testosterone levels: “Our male bodies are not obstacles to empathy or […]

  3. […] all seemed a bit panicky to me, so I was relieved to find the interpretation sociologist Hugo Schweitzer offered on the website The Good Men Project. I was also struck by how […]

  4. […] about the new study that indicates drops in testosterone after becoming a father, why not see it the way the Good Men Project does: As it turns out, the claim that women are “just built to be more nurturing” (so we might as […]

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