JULIA & TONY: HORMONE OVERLOAD
What if old-fashioned human biology could explain why neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott satisfy us as leaders?
What if, armed with this understanding, no-one under the age of 55 was ever allowed anywhere near Parliament House or the floor of the stockmarket?
And, what if an Australian council of male and female “tribal elders” was the most stable form of government we could ever have?
Too many hormones? Tony Abbott in flight mode. Photograph via WA Today.
These questions have intrigued me over the past few days since I stumbled across a bunch of theories in the emerging field of biobehavioural science.
It’s an area of science which has exploded in the last decade and seeks to blend neurobiology and psychology to explain our social interactions. It also asks if we humans can overcome our basic biology to create a better world.
Let me explain.
It’s our hormones that are getting us into strife.
It gets back to our earliest times as humans. Men were warriors and the defenders of women who were primarily occupied with giving birth and tending children and the elderly.
Women produce, on average, about 10-20 percent of the testosterone of men. That means the way men and women respond to stress and threat, is very, very different.
Not better, or worse… just different.
So, when our ancestors encountered, say a rampant grizzly bear, the males were more likely to react with what’s called “fight or flight”. And the females, responding to the urge of their reproductive hormones, were more likely to do what’s called “tend and befriend” in order to maintain their social networks.
In other words, the science has the Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard phenomenon nailed.
It’s explained in the work of the US biologically oriented social psychologist, Shelley E. Taylor.
Remember when Abbott (left) and Pyne ran through Parliament for the exits when big, bad Craig Thomson (not so much grizzly, as rampant koala) appeared in their midst? Being unable to fight, both Abbott and Pyne chose “flight” as they rattled the doors of Parliament in a frenzy.
Meanwhile, Julia Gillard made soothing noises to keep friends and her minority government intact.
Tony lacks compassion. Julia doesn’t have the killer instinct.
Two sides of the same coin… and when male and female approaches are set up against each other, it creates friction. Neither has the whole answer.
(Interestingly, the research postulates what triggers stress in men and women is also different. Men are more stressed by failure in competitive situations. Women are more stressed by social problems in families and relationships.)
The second theory I encountered was in The Winner Effect by Trinity neuroscientist Professor Ian H. Robertson.
In it he shows how, for some men, power can be as addictive as any drug.
Bill Clinton, Napoleon, Silvio Berlusconi, Dominique Strauss-Kahn: what drives these men to take such risks and how does success and power change the way their brains work?
The ‘winner effect’ is a term used in biology to describe how a male animal that has won a few fights against weaker opponents is much more likely to win subsequent bouts against stronger contenders.
Their testosterone levels become turbo-charged, so they take greater and greater risks until finally, they overplay their hands, meet their match and, as it happens in the animal world, lose everything – their territory, their capacity to breed, their lives.
It applies to humans, too. Prof. Robertson says that success actually changes the chemistry of the male brain, making them more focused, smarter, confident and aggressive. The effect is as strong as any drug, he says. The more males win, the more they will go on to win. (NB: Research, as yet unpublished, suggests women do not have the winner effect.)
But the downside is that winning can become so addictive that even the thought of more power can make men lose empathy and cheat on their partners.
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