08/02/2011 08:31 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2011

Stressful Choices

"Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success." -- Dale Carnegie

"Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value." -- Albert Einstein

I'm not the first born, but second in my sibling pack. Get over it, you say. Well, James Gorman, writing for The New York Times (July 14, 2011, "Baboon Study Shows Benefits for Nice Guys, Who Finish 2nd") about Princeton post-doc Laurence R. Gesquiere's baboon research, got me thinking about it again. After studying alpha baboon males for more than nine years, her team reported that the alphas have as much stress as the lowest-ranking males. It seems that fighting off challengers and guarding access to fertile females comes at a price. And the beta males who fought less because of less mate guarding not only had much lower stress levels but also had more mating opportunities than any lower-ranking males, even if not as many as the alphas. Other researchers are praising this new work. 1 They see in it insights into how rank creates very different psychological experiences for the baboons.

We know that stress hormones are released during fight-or-flight, short-term challenges. But the hormones released long-term are more dangerous, as they do not serve simply to energize us when we need to respond but eat us alive, subjecting us to an internal chemistry that breaks down our bodies and can cause disease.2 Baboons are not humans -- they get lots of exercise and do not seem to develop heart disease, and alpha baboons do not remain the "top dog" very long. Humans, on the other hand, can experience high stress levels for long periods. The evidence is that chronic increased levels of stress hormones increase the chance of developing diseases or worsen existing diseases.3

Scientists engaged in these studies assert that the application to human health or social structure is not direct.4 Scientists do believe that such studies raise questions about the costs of being at the top. Even with humans not following the strict hierarchical systems of some animals, the research suggests that those willing to be no. 2 may last longer and achieve relative success over time.

At New Mexico State University, however, 200 college students were tested to see how many had what psychologists call "dark triad traits."5 Characteristics such as callousness, impulsive behavior, extroversion, narcissism and outright anti-social "bad boy" behaviors qualified. Many people say they do not like such people. But Peter Jonason, the lead investigator, said his research showed that many women are attracted to such "bad boys," and they had at least short-term success in the number of women who accepted them as one-night stands.6 That short-term success may have evolutionary impact, if such dating leads to short-term mating.

Writing for the ABC News Medical Unit, Audrey Grayson, in "Why Nice Guys Finish Last," quoted Heather Rupp, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, who said that physiology rather than psychology may be the factor:

"I think it goes back to the physiological underpinnings of such an attraction. For 
instance, testosterone is a hormone that in men is linked to more dominant personality traits - outgoing personalities and charm and things like that. And men with higher testosterone are rated by independent observers as being more outgoing and charming than others."

But short-term success does not a relationship make. And just as the alpha baboon may find sustaining the lead by frequent fighting and mating stressful and endangering to his health, "bad boy" traits may run their course in time. How do longer-term relationships fare? Tracy McVeigh interviewed Dr. John Gray for the Observer.7 McVeigh in "What drives Alpha males to keep on having affairs?" quoted the author of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" (which has sold some 50 million copies):

"With oxytocin and alpha men, as the women's stress level goes down when she gets oxytocin from a loving monogamous relationship, the man's testosterone level is going down, so he's getting more stressed and more inclined to seek out risky behavior to push it back up again. The concept is that intimacy can lower a man's sexual drive."

Addressing recent sex scandals with high-profile, celebrity men, Gray believes the divide between men and women is being exacerbated by those hormones, making it harder for them to be monogamous in a stressful world. Gray argues that powerful men are used to having more testosterone and seek to replenish their depleted reserves.8 The so-called "love-hormone" -- oxytocin -- helps people bond and lowers female stress. But the alpha male seeks risky behavior to restore the previous hormonal level:

"When I was raised, in the fifties, for my mother a good husband was someone who had a job, he didn't drink or smoke too much, he didn't yell or shout. She said that for that generation a provider was what women wanted. She had a lifestyle which kept her oxytocin levels up so she was happy. She says the lack of romance wasn't a big deal and if she suspected he might have 'other responsibilities' somewhere else it didn't bother her. In the eighties women wanted romance. In the nineties women wanted communication. Now noughties women want romance, then communication, then they are saying, 'I get nothing in the way of domestic help.' That's all mixed up. So while women are obsessing with help with the housework and men are obsessing with casual sex, their relationships are being riven apart. In America the startling statistic is that the average length of a relationship is five years. That's three years of passion and two years of gathering the evidence they need to leave."

Not all scientists agree with Gray's theories.9 Perhaps the differences between men and women are smaller than he suggests. Dr. Gray does, however, insist that he is not excusing male behaviors. He's not asserting that men are slaves to hormones. John Gray has been married to his wife for 26 years: "If I see an attractive woman, I use my brain to remember my wife, and my arousal goes back to my wife -- you train yourself with that, you control your urges." That's got to be less stressful than some alternative behavior.
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