This is what happened to fathers’ hormone levels when they watched their kids play football

GettyImages-90647584.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

The effect of playing sport on men’s testosterone levels is well documented. Generally speaking, the winner enjoys a testosterone boost, while the loser experiences the opposite (though far less studied, competition unsurprisingly also affects women’s hormonal levels, though not in the same ways as men’s). The evolutionary-based explanation for the hormonal effects seen in men is that the winner’s testosterone rise acts to increase their aggression and the likelihood that they will seek out more contests, while the loser skulks off to lick their wounds. When it comes to vicarious effects of competition on men’s testosterone, however, the findings are more mixed. There’s some evidence that male sports fans show testosterone gains after seeing their teams win, but other studies have failed to replicate this finding.

A new, small study in Human Nature adds to this literature by examining the hormonal changes (testosterone and cortisol) in fathers watching their children play a football game – a situation in which you might particularly expect to see vicarious hormonal effects since it’s the men’s own kin who are involved.

The eighteen participating fathers (average age 47) were recruited in the US state of New Mexico where they were watching their kids (average age 13) play in a local football (soccer) tournament. Nine of them were watching their sons play, the others were watching their daughters. The dads provided saliva samples before and after the matches, and also answered some questions about their child and the game.

Anthropologist Louis Alvarado at the University at Albany and his colleagues, including the psychologists Melissa Eaton and Melissa Thompson at the University of New Mexico, found that the fathers’ testosterone and cortisol levels increased after the experience of watching the games (by 81 per cent and 417 per cent, respectively). These changes weren’t linked to the outcomes of the games, but were to an extent explained by whether or not the fathers believed that the referee had acted unfairly towards their child’s team – if they did perceive unfairness, the fathers’ post-match cortisol and testosterone tended to be higher (fathers with higher pre-match testosterone were also more likely to perceive unfairness).

The researchers said this main result of a link between hormonal changes and fairness  perception was “consistent with a functional explanation in which hormonal changes are associated with the potential for future conflict – here, in the context of responding to potential threats affecting one’s own status and that of kin.”

Given that aggression among parents watching their kids has become “an important cultural issue”, the researchers added that their results could “… have implications for the growing body of literature that attempts to curb the problem of sideline violence by identifying the proximate and individualistic factors associated with conflict potential.”

Other findings to come out of the study were that fathers watching their sons showed greater testosterone rises than fathers watching their daughters, as did fathers who felt sports were less important to their child (this latter result was opposite to expectations, and the researchers speculated that it was perhaps connected to the fathers’ frustration or disappointment that their child was not taking the competition seriously enough).

A more technical finding was that gains in the fathers’ “stress hormone” cortisol tended to predict subsequent increases in their testosterone. This result provides tentative support for the so-called “positive coregulation” model of cortisol and testosterone, in which increases in cortisol supplement the effects of testosterone when males are competing, while arguing against the opposite theory that sees cortisol as down-regulating testosterone and reducing the likelihood of the individual engaging in competitive behaviour in times of stress. The researchers said the “positive coregulation” model makes more sense in evolutionary terms, with stress (and cortisol) priming high-ranking male primates to be more competitive when they are faced with the threat of status competition from more junior males.

Steroid Hormone Reactivity in Fathers Watching Their Children Compete

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Similarity in shame and its repercussions across 15 world cultures points to the emotion’s survival function

Screenshot 2018-10-10 09.23.17.png
The 15 sites the researchers visited to study shame, from Sznycer et al 2018

By Emma Young

Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful? 

The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good. 

Daniel Sznycer at the University of Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues interviewed people living in 15 very different small-scale societies, including in the Andes in Ecuador, a remote region of Siberia, and the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. 

The researchers asked one group from each society for their thoughts on 12 hypothetical situations involving a person of the same sex as them, including how much shame this person should feel if he or she was ugly, or lazy, or stole from someone in the community, for example. Participants were also asked to indicate, using a four-point scale, how negatively they would view this person as a result (thus providing an indication of how much that person would be “devalued” by others). The researchers also asked members of a fresh group of participants in each society to indicate, again on a four-point scale, how much shame they would themselves feel in the various hypothetical situations. 

Overall, the researchers found very close agreement between the degree of felt shame that participants estimated being associated with a given act or state and how much they indicated a person would be de-valued as a result of committing that act/ being in that state. This was particularly true within a society, but it also held across societies. “The fact that the same pattern is encountered in such mutually remote communities suggests that shame’s match to audience devaluation is a design feature crafted by [natural] selection, and not a product of cultural contact or convergent cultural evolution,” the researchers write.

Our ancestors lived in small, close-knit bands, and they depended on each other for survival. In bad times, especially, they had to rely on each other to pull through. Always being selfless wouldn’t have been wise, as the individual would likely have been exploited. But for someone always to act contrary to the group’s ideas of what mattered, and what was important (that all members should contribute to the tasks important for survival, for example), would have been a bad move, too, as they could have found themselves shunned or even exiled. 

To thrive, the researchers argue, a person would have had to accurately weigh the payoff of an act (taking food without telling others, or pretending to be sick instead of foraging or hunting, for instance) against the cost if they were found out. The results of the study suggest that shame evolved to help us to make the right decision – to act in our own long-term interests by not seriously jeopardising our place in our social group. Shame, then, functions like pain – as a warning not to repeat a behaviour that threatens our own wellbeing. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that shame is always good. If your group has badly skewed ideas about what really matters – if it places a high value on what clothes you wear, or what your body looks like, for example – then shame is skewed too, into something that isn’t helpful, but harmful. 

Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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