Men’s attitudes toward babies linked with hormonal responses to sexually explicit material

Experiment shows physiological trade-off between parenting and fast living

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

Young men with positive attitudes toward babies and parenting have relatively low physiological reactivity to sexually explicit material, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study, by a team of researchers at the University of Chicago and Wayne State University, showed that men with positive attitudes toward babies had a lower increase in testosterone in response to explicit material compared with men who had less positive attitudes toward babies. The research sheds light on the physiological basis for choices that young men make about whether to focus more on child rearing or pursuing sexual partners.

“Our findings show there is a strong mind-body connection: Liking or not liking babies is related to how a man’s body—specifically, his testosterone—responds to sexual stimuli,” said behavioral biologist Dario Maestripieri, professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago and lead researcher on the study. “These results suggest that even before young men make actual decisions about marriage and children, one can distinguish between individuals who are more fatherhood-oriented and those who are less fatherhood-oriented.”

The researchers recruited 100 young men, mostly university students, to participate in their study. The men were all heterosexual, and none of them was a father. The participants completed a 12-item questionnaire that gauged their interest in babies and how they would respond to babies in various scenarios. They also completed a 20-item survey that assessed their life-history strategy. On the survey, the participants rated their level of agreement with statements like “I have to be closely attached to someone before I am comfortable having sex with them” and “I often get emotional support and practical help from my blood relatives.”

After completing the questionnaires, the participants provided a baseline saliva sample. They were then left alone in the testing room to watch a 12-minute video featuring explicit erotic content. A saliva sample was taken once the video was over, and again 10 minutes later.

As the researchers predicted, young men who showed greater interest in babies tended to report a stronger orientation toward family and long-term relationships (a “slow” life-history strategy) compared with men who were less interested in babies.

Importantly, the results showed men who had positive attitudes toward babies tended to show relatively smaller increases in testosterone in response to the sexually explicit video. This association was not influenced by participants’ relationship status.

There was no evidence of a relationship between baseline testosterone levels and interest in babies, indicating that the results were not related to testosterone function more generally but were specific to reactivity to sexual stimuli.

“Young men who don’t like babies as much get more physiologically aroused by visual sexual stimuli; this makes sense from a life history perspective,” says Maestripieri. “These men ‘live on the fast lane.’ They are attracted to and aroused by novel sexual partners and are ready to take advantage of new sexual opportunities when they present themselves.”

“By contrast, young men who like babies more are less sexually aroused by novel sexual stimuli (for example, erotic content), but they presumably enjoy sex more in the context of stable monogamous relationships with partners they know well.

“We think that showing these mind-body connections is very novel and very exciting,” Maestripieri concludes.


Citation: “Interest in Babies Negatively Predicts Testosterone Responses to Sexual Visual Stimuli Among Heterosexual Young Men,” by Samuele Zilioli, Davide Ponzi, Andrea Henry, Konrad Kubicki, Nora Nickels, M. Claire Wilson, and Dario Maestripieri, Psychological Science, published online Dec. 1, 2015, Doi: 10.1177/0956797615615868.

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