Human Motivation & Affective Neuroscience Lab
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Latest Finding: 29 February 2008
Estrogen fuels female power

Much has been said about the role of testosterone in male dominance, and many studies attest to the power-enhancing effects of this hormone in men. But what about women’s need for dominance? Is there any evidence for a hormonal basis of female power seeking, too?

Until recently, clear-cut research findings that could have answered this question were sorely missing, even leading some researchers to doubt that women have a biologically anchored need for dominance like men do. But new research by the University of Michigan’s Steven Stanton and Oliver Schultheiss now suggests that the sex hormone estrogen may be for women what testosterone is for men: the fuel of power.

Stanton and Schultheiss measured women’s need for power and then assessed salivary estrogen levels both before and after they entered a one-on-one dominance contest. The researchers found that even before women got involved in the contest, higher power motivation was associated with higher levels of estrogen. Winners of the contest showed even further increases in estrogen after the contest, but only if they had a strong need for power. Notably, this increase could still be detected one day after the contest was over. In contrast, power-motivated losers showed a post-contest decrease in estrogen. These effects were not observed among women who did not possess a strong need for power.

Says Steven Stanton, author of the study which was published in a recent issue of the journal ’Hormones and Behavior’: “Women have long been overlooked in biological research on dominance. Using a male model, the small body of existing research has struggled to link testosterone to dominance motivation and behavior in women. However, estrogen is very behaviorally potent and is actually a close hormonal relative to testosterone. In female mammals, estrogen has been tied to dominance, but there has been scant research examining the behavioral roles of estrogen in women. Thus, we were excited by our findings, because they show that specifically estradiol (and not testosterone) is related to power motivation in women, and pave the way for future research on the biology of dominance in women.” His co-author Oliver Schultheiss adds: “Our findings perfectly parallel what we have observed for power motivation and testosterone in men. In men, power motivation is associated with heightened levels of testosterone, particularly after a contest victory. In women, estrogen appears to be the critical hormone for power motivation.”

Thus, it appears that some may have written off a biological basis for female power prematurely. For women, just like men, the lust for power involves the release of sex hormones.

Previous releases:

High-testosterone people reinforced by others’ anger, new study finds (February 2007)

Study finds US students more motivated to achieve, less power-hungry than German students (August 2006)

Are all people stressed out by a defeat or does it hurt some more than others? (April 2006)

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