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Attack of the ‘Testosterone Rex’

The reason why we still believe men are biologically more aggressive than women

Research into sex differences show that men and women are more alike than different, but in spite of this, we still perpetuate—and even believe—we’re from different planets. A recent survey found that in spite of unprecedented progress in demonstrating we’re on equal footing, we still believe we’re vastly, fundamentally different — the original odd couple. Men are strong and tough; women are more emotional and nurturing.

We also believe men are simply wired to take more risks than women, even though research says that’s not true. This misconception is due in large part to something called “Testosterone Rex,” what philosophy and history professor Cordelia Fine says is at the root of the persistent belief that it’s testosterone that makes all the difference in the sexes.

“Testosterone Rex is, in short, the legend of that familiar scientific story that tells us risk-taking evolved more strongly in males than in females because of the greater reproductive advantages of status and resources for men in our ancestral past, and that these qualities are therefore wired into the male brain and fueled by testosterone,” Fine writes at Financial Times. “Testosterone Rex swaggers through countless scientific studies and can be regularly spotted in discussions of financial behavior.”

This thinking also swaggers through countless MRA or PUA forums, stand-up comedy routines, television shows, films, art and in the everyday conversations we have about ourselves. Fine, whose book Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds largely writes about the response to the idea of the Lehman Sisters — the theory that surfaced in 2009 that if the Lehman Brothers had been sisters, and therefore wired more for caution than recklessness, we’d have dodged the global financial crisis. But Fine argues that it’s bias and cultural myth that perpetuate the idea that women don’t take risks. “Despite the longstanding assumption that a ‘go get it’ approach to life is only important for male procreation,” Fine writes, “dominant female mammals often enjoy more and better food, privileged access to water or nest sites, and are less likely to become a predator’s dinner.”

In other words, unsurprisingly, women have to be tough and competitive to survive, too. And this is no different in finance than ensuring procreation and survival of the species. A recent study of 36,000 workers across 10 banks that measured risk by gender found that 46 percent of the women had a greater tolerance for financial risk than men. “The ubiquitous image of the cautious female banker, carefully handling capital as though it were a newborn baby, is more figment than fact, these findings suggest,” Fine notes.

To say nothing of the fact, she adds, that the very person who invented the credit default swap derivative — a driving force behind the housing market crash — was a woman named Blythe Masters.

This isn’t just true in risk; it’s also true when it comes to perceived gender differences in emotions. This shows up in our belief that men are simply angrier than women, who are naturally more pleasant. In 2009, two studies showed that what we think is true about gender is often stronger than the evidence. In one study, when people were shown androgynous-looking faces that seem angry or happy, they were more likely to assume the angry face was male, and the happy face was female. It also took longer for participants to realize an angry female face was female. Participants in another study — women — were given testosterone pills and then played a cooperative game that involved the choice of sharing $10 with a partner. There was no difference in generosity unless the woman was told she’d been given more testosterone, when she became more aggressive and less generous in her offers.

The same goes for our perceptions of sex differences. Men are more visual and not hardwired for monogamy, most of us seem to think. Always on the prowl, they can hardly help it if they cheat or wander, because they’re built for variety and promiscuity, all in an effort to spread that seed. It’s women who are naturally suited to settling down with one guy, who prefer erotica to porn, love to lust.

But when researcher Daniel Bergner looked closer at the science peddling these theories, he found the opposite. “Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be — that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality,” Tracy Clark-Fiory writes in an interview at Salon with Bergner, off his book, What Do Women Want?

He argues that scientists have long ignored the evidence that women are just as visual and excited as men sexually because it doesn’t support the prevailing view. Female rhesus monkeys initiate sex, for instance, and sexually stalk their desired mates. Women self-report not being turned on by a number of things when they’re hooked up to plethysmographs and watch porn, but the physical responses tell another story: They’re turned on more than men by a much wider range of pornographic images, including bestiality.

Increasingly, more and more research is being written to debunk the myths baked into the science that used to knock itself out showing us how different we are. In an interview at Slate with British science writer Angela Saini about her new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — And the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story, Saini says that we’re just scratching the surface of understanding the difference between nature and nurture.

“And what we do know suggests that the psychological differences between the sexes are really small, and that cognitively, in intelligence terms, they are almost nonexistent,” she writes. “Biology certainly can’t account for the great gender disparities we see in many societies.”

It may take science a long time to undo flawed methods and inherent bias. Until then, we’ll have to tell ourselves a new story about gender — one that goes something like this: We’re more alike than we are different, and if we’re committed to real equality, it’s the similarities that matter most anyway.