What relationship does testosterone have to social awareness and emotional intelligence? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Emotional intelligence is simply the act of being aware of emotions. Those with high "EQ" or emotional quotient are aware of not only their emotions but the emotions of others. Those with high EQ can accept the full range of human emotions, not only in theory but also in practice. Someone with a high EQ isn't going to freak out if they are a witness to you crying, shouting, or freaking out yourself.
Emotional awareness is something that all humans are capable of achieving. EQ is not a personality trait. EQ is a natural set of skills that all people are born with. Some people choose to develop their emotional awareness and others choose to tamp their emotional awareness down. Modern society tends to encourage the tamping down of emotional awareness.
Scientists who study ancient humans can look at the physical structures (skulls and skeletons) that those humans left behind. The scientists noticed that as time went on, human skeletons started looking a lot less rugged. Brow ridges receded. Jaws shrank. Overall facial measurements became more rounded. The more ancient the skull, the more it looked like it was a person with a lot of testosterone and as time went on, the faces seemed to become much less aggressive.
Nathan Lents, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today about how this story of ancient humans looks. He argues that a trend toward a lessening of testosterone in early humans may have allowed for civilization to occur. Fewer aggressive individuals mean a more peaceful group living environment. Over time, as humans started producing less testosterone, we started living together more closely. This makes sense, right?
Maybe. I think Lents might have it backward. Survival and procreation are the pressures that change human traits over time. If early humans were being born into increasingly urban (for lack of a better word) environments, then those individuals with lower testosterone were perhaps better able to get along in early society. Those friendlier humans were able to pass on their genes, thus seeding a new generation of lower testosterone people.
Interestingly, testosterone levels are not just driven by genetics. An individual can change his or her testosterone levels simply through behavior. A more aggressive, dominant lifestyle complete with competitions and trials against other individuals raises that person's testosterone. The same person can settle down into a more submissive lifestyle, and their testosterone will drop dramatically. Imagine a single male, out in the world competing for business by day in his sales job, and for a mate by night at the bar. This guy's testosterone is going to be much higher while he lives that lone wolf lifestyle. When he gets married, takes an office job, and tucks his three children into bed at night, his testosterone will plummet.
We know testosterone to be a masculine hormone that makes men feel good. Testosterone is also the hormone that makes any person, male or female, into a better competitor than a collaborator.
Humans are a social species. We live in family groups and tend toward villages, towns, and cities. One trait that makes us particularly good at living the group life is our ability to recognize how those around us are feeling. With a glance, you can know exactly how someone is feeling. We are so good at recognizing emotion in other humans that we can get all the information we need from a black and white photo. We don't even need visuals. Hearing a voice over the phone is enough information to understand what emotions are being expressed.
Empathy is the word we use to describe our uncanny ability to know and sometimes even feel the emotions of others. Empathy is the sixth sense that let our early ancestors hunt in packs without language. Today empathy allows us to live in cities, and in close quarters, without killing each other over misunderstandings.
Although not totally defined yet by neuroscientists, empathy uses mirror neurons that allow you to have the same brain activity as the person you are watching. When someone else takes a drink of coffee while you look on, your brain acts as though you took a drink too. The Anterior Insular Cortex (AIC) is a brain region important to this system. Those who have had damage to their AIC find that empathy eludes them.
What does all this have to do with testosterone? Well, a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology last year showed that a single dose of testosterone given to a woman temporarily inhibited her ability to read the emotions of others. They asked women to take a test called Reading the Mind in Eyes Test (RMET). This test consists of a series of photographs of faces that have been cropped so that only the eyes are showing. Subject are asked to identify the emotion in each eyes-only photograph. After a dose of testosterone, the women fared worse on the test than they did before the hormone dose. This result suggests that the hormone levels themselves are capable of affecting a person's ability to identify emotion in others.
What can we learn from all of this? The primary lesson here is that you can change your testosterone levels through your behavior and by doing so, you can modify your ability to use your sixth sense of empathy. You can regularly engage in confrontations and competitions with others and effectively raise your testosterone levels. This makes you a better competitor but makes you less capable of reading the emotions of others.
To be a friendly, collaborative member of your social group, you will have to back down from some of those social spars. If you are content to be the insensitive one in the group, by all means, keep arguing. If you want to see what high EQ and empathy have to offer you socially, back down from the next pissing contest you encounter. A few submissive acts might give you the hormonal freedom to read the subtleties of human emotions in the room. You might be surprised at how much you've been missing.
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