It Takes Two to Benefit Cortisol and Testosterone levels

I’ve recently taken up learning tango dancing as a new hobby. I’ve been doing it for several months now and have to say that it’s quite enjoyable. I mentioned to someone in conversation how when I dance, I feel very elated afterwards, and they remarked that there’s probably quite the testosterone response from tangoing. Not being one to let a good opportunity for over-examination go to waste, I did a quite good search for articles on tango and hormone release. Turns out that one exists. Here’s a link to an abstract.

The study tested levels of both salivary cortisol and salivary testosterone before and after dance. The study was set up as a 2×2 study looking at dancing with and without a partner and with and without music to compare the effects of both variables alone and in combination with eachother.

Cortisol

Results showed that dancing with a partner showed the greatest drop in cortisol levels, however all test situations showed drops in cortisol. The drop from tango dancing with both music and partner showed nearly double the drop in cortisol on average compared to other test situation. The presence of music seemed to have a large effect on this drop, as the least significant changes were seen in cases without music.

Testosterone

Effects on testosterone seemed to be largely dependent on presence of a partner. Change with a partner was M=2.66 pg/ml, SD=4.45; and without a partner was M=–0.260 pg/ml, SD=4.23. So testosterone levels actually decreased slightly (on average) when dancing without a partner. Interestingly though, the study designers chose to repeat the situation of the first week (with partner and music) on the fifth week to see if perhaps the nerves or novelty of the first week could have caused a difference in testosterone levels. As it turns out, it had a huge effect. Session 1 showed an increase  of 4.06 pg/ml, SD=5.77; yet when they returned to the same conditions in session 5, they saw -1.17 pg/ml; SD=7.19 pg/ml.

From my experience, I would hypothesize that this change was a result of novelty. Dancing with a new partner can be extremely exhilarating (Coolidge Effect fallout anyone?). Although all participants had over one year of experience dancing and all but 4 enrolled with partners with whom they were partnered the entire time, the study does not mention the frequency or recency with which they couples had danced together previously. I suspect that the regularity of the study caused some of the novelty to wear off by the 5th session. One interesting follow-up for this would be to have one group of couples which would switch who they danced with and a control group which remained with the same partners and measure the effects on testosterone over the sessions.

Conclusions

I’m going to keep dancing because I enjoy it, but it is nice to know that I’m helping to reduce my cortisol and increase (maybe) my testosterone levels. I’d be very curious to see a larger study done with more participants and some additional factors. This one only had 22 participants, and while results were tested for statistical significance, it’d be nice to have more data.

Vocal Attractiveness and Sexual Dimorphism: Why Singers are Sexy

Picture this scene: you sit in a dark bar, feet cold from the snow outside, warmed by slow sipping gin and tonic, listening forlornly to a group of women sing dusky arias. Suddenly a blonde woman of moderate physical looks comes to the stage and starts to sing. Her voice intoxicates you and for those few minutes, you fall madly in love. Something about her voice has captivated you. Seems reasonable enough right? I’ve spent a pretty good amount of time watching and listening to a number of singers performing in various groups: a capella, opera, choral, and others. I suspect anyone with similar experiences can also recall a time where they’ve fallen in love listening to someone sing. Voices can be powerfully alluring, and I’d never really stopped to question it or ask why until I recently stumbled across an study with some interesting insight into the matter. The study is enthrallingly titled: Ratings of voice attractiveness predict sexual behavior and body configuration (click title for full text). Before we get too far into it though, let’s do a brief overview of a concept you’ll need:

WHR and SHR: Waist-to-hip ratio and shoulder-to-hip ratio are cross-cultural indicators of sexual attractiveness in humans; with smaller WHR in women being more attractive, and larger SHR in men being the same.

The Study

The study mentioned above is quite simple in practice. Researchers recorded the voices of 76 females and 70 males (excluding ones who may have damaged their voices from external events such as smoking and clear outliers such as people with accents). The participants were recorded counting from 1 to 10. Participants were then asked to listen to recordings from others and rank them from 1 to 5 (1=very unattractive and 5=very attractive). Each voice was rated 12+-2 times and had approximately the same number of male and female reviewers. People tended to rate voices as similar.

The second part of the experiment was gathering additional data from participants. Each was measured at the shoulders, waist, and hips and their BMI* as well as height and weight were recorded. Roughly half the participants also completed an anonymous questionnaire about their sexual history, including such things as number of sexual partners, number of extra-pair copulation partners (sleeping with someone who’s not your partner), and age of first sexual intercourse, among others.

* As a side note, BMI sucks as a measurement. Healthy, well muscled individuals will often show up as overweight or obese, whereas a someone who is skinny fat could likely be marked as normal, despite being quite unhealthy. For example, at 5’11” and 175lbs, I’m borderline overweight, despite having around 10% body fat and the ability to deadlift 2x my bodyweight. Oh, hey look, a quick google search turned up an article from NPR entitled “Top 10 Reasons Why The BMI Is Bogus” which explains this.

Results and Conclusions:

This study produced a number of interesting results:

Voice and physical characteristics:

  • Men with larger shoulders and smaller waists (higher SHR) were more likely have voices rated as attractive by women and men to a lesser degree.
  • Women with smaller waists and larger hips (lower WHR) were more likely to have voices rated attractive by men.
  • BMI seemed to have no relationship between vocal attractiveness.

Physical characteristics and sexual behaviors:

  • Higher SHR is men were correlated with having sex at younger ages, as well as having had more sexual partners, more EPC and more sexual partners who were in other relationships.
  • Lower WHR in women was correlated with younger age of first sexual intercourse as well as a higher number of sexual partners, EPC partners and partners in other relationships.

Voice and sexual behaviors:

  • Men and women with more attractive voices had sex at younger ages, more sexual partners, EPC and sex with people in other relationships.

The data establishes correlations between physical attractiveness, vocal attractiveness, and sexual behaviors, noting that both physical and vocal attractiveness seems to lead to increased sexual activity. Researchers also offer a potential explanation for the link between physical and vocal characteristics in the form of hormones; noting that sex hormones influence both the emergence of physical sex differences as well as vocal structure during adolescence.

Regardless of the device by which this occurs, we can extrapolate some interesting conclusions about vocal attraction and the link between physical and vocal attraction. Other studies have show that physical attractiveness (as measured by SHR and WHR) are good indicators of health and reproductive status. We can therefore assume that there is likely a correlation between these factors and vocal attraction as well. Authors of this study suggest that because of the high degree of accuracy in predicting health from vocal attractiveness, it may well have been an important part of mate selection throughout our evolution.

What about singers?

Then what about my claim that singing can get you laid? Well, singers which people find more vocally attractive are going to be most likely also more physically attractive, and regardless, vocal attraction also predicts increased sexual activity. As this study indicates, those with more attractive voices tended to have more sexual partners. The act of singing in performance also affords singers a unique opportunity to display the attractiveness of their voices, much as a sport competition allows athletes to exhibit beneficial physical traits.

Learning how to sing is a process of training the voice to sound more attractive. While there are certainly examples of bad singers who have been successful (like Bob Dylan or the guy from Audioslave), most singers strive for success (at least in part) by sounding attractive to listeners. (I should note here that I am blending the concepts of vocal attraction with vocal pleasantness, but I feel that the two are very similar if not the same.)

In a sense, training the voice to be more pleasant (attractive) is a bit like training the body to be more physically attractive. Sexual indicators such as SHR and WHR can be affected by diet and exercise to some degree, and there’s no reason why vocal attraction cannot be trained as well. Certainly not everyone would be able to move from a 1 to a 5 on the scale, but 1 to 3 or 4 to 5 is certainly not out of the question. Imagine a soft-spoken man being coached by a friend to speak more loudly in a bar. This will increase the attractiveness of his voice by making it sound fuller and more confident (words we would use to describe an attractive voice). He has not changed his fundamental vocal devices, but has improved his use of them.

Through both technical and physical training and performance opportunities singers are inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) going to make themselves more attractive to members of the opposite sex. This will in turn likely improve their chances for sexual encounters.