As the results rolled in last night, it began to dawn on millions of Americans that they were on the wrong side of history. Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton appeared to be leading the polls for the entire election campaign, the former secretary of state lost the election in heartbreaking fashion. Instead of a shattered ceiling, Clinton supporters were left with shattered hopes.
In addition to the feelings of shock, sadness, and anger that people expressed on social media, there is reason to believe that the experience of losing might have altered their basic biological makeup.
Political elections have often been described as a dominance competition, in which political foes establish a social hierarchy with a winner on top and a loser on the bottom. When male mammals—and that includes us humans—win a dominance contest, their testosterone levels tend to rise or remain stable; when they lose, their testosterone levels fall. Research suggests this happens whether you’re one of the competitors in the fray, or watching your favorite sports team from the safety of your living room. In either case, testosterone rises for the winners and decreases in the losers.
In 2008, a team of neuroscientists from Duke University applied this logic to the US presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain (as well as independent Robert Barr). Researchers asked 183 participants—Republicans, Democrats, and undecided voters—to come to laboratories in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Durham, North Carolina the day before the election. They sent these voters home with a saliva-collection kit and had them provide saliva samples once as the polls closed, and then again minutes after they had learned that Obama had been declared the winner of the presidential race. Participants returned their samples the next day, and the researchers examined whether testosterone levels rose among those who aligned themselves with the winner and losers.
As it turned out, men who voted for the winner (Barack Obama) had stable levels of testosterone, while men who voted for the losers (John McCain and Bob Barr) experienced a drop in their testosterone. There was no effect in women. The study results showed that vicarious defeat was enough to drive down the testosterone levels in vicarious losers. Critically, this effect was not explained by conservatism—which means it should apply to Clinton’s male supporters today as well.
As you made your way to work this morning, you might have noticed a look of defeat and exhaustion among fellow commuters and colleagues. Some of this is doubtless due to collective sleep deprivation, but part of it may be due to subtle hormonal shifts that took place within the bodies of Clinton supporters after her loss. Testosterone serves a number of important functions in healthy populations, including muscle growth and body hair in men. Although the relationship is complex, lower testosterone levels in men are associated with a number of problems, including depression and sexual dysfunction.