Contraceptive use, relationship status, testosterone and socially dominant behavior in women

Women’s tendency to behave dominantly in social situations may have more complex causes than men’s, depending not only on testosterone levels but also on factors including contraceptive use and relationship status, according to a study published in the journal Adaptive Human Behaviors and Physiology.

Socially dominant behavior refers to actions asserting one’s own interests and leading others in interpersonal interactions. A person’s pattern of social dominance tends to be related to social status, the ability to control important resources, and other beneficial outcomes. In men, social dominance has been extensively studied, and has been reliably linked with testosterone levels.

Men with higher levels of testosterone, a hormone known to have a range of mental and physiological impacts, tend to be more socially dominant. Social dominance in women has not been studied as extensively, and since women’s bodies produce smaller amounts of testosterone, it has been suggested that other factors may play an equally important role in influencing this trait. For example, use of hormonal contraceptives (such as birth control pills) is known to suppress testosterone levels, which may complicate this relationship among women. Being in a romantic relationship, which tends to raise testosterone levels in men, has been found to lower them in women, adding additional complications

A team of researchers led by Kelly Coby, of the University of Stirling, designed a study to examine some of the key potential influences on social dominance among women. A sample of 85 female college students responded to a questionnaire measuring social dominance. They also provided saliva samples which were used to measure testosterone levels, and reported whether they were currently using hormonal contraceptives and whether they were currently in a relationship.

The results showed that women’s social dominance was positively correlated with their levels of testosterone, albeit to a more modest extent than typically found among men. Hormonal contraceptive users were found to have significantly lower testosterone levels, but its effect on social dominance was more complicated. Among women who were in relationships, hormonal contraception was related to slightly higher social dominance, but among single women it was related to lower social dominance.

The study authors suggest that their results contradict expectations based on research conducted with men. Although social dominance was modestly related to higher testosterone, women not using hormonal contraceptives in relationships (who tend to have lower testosterone levels than those who are single) were also more socially dominant. In light of these results, it seems that increasing social assertiveness may be a more complicated process for women than for men.