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Macho Motoring

Driving a sports car is linked to higher testosterone levels in men.
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High-end, high-performance sports cars have been described as four-wheeled phallic symbols. New on-the-road research suggests this link between automotive luxury and libido may be more than a metaphor.

A just-published study reports testosterone levels in men rose dramatically after they spent an hour driving a Porsche. In contrast, tooling around town in a battered Toyota did not produce a statistically significant change in levels of the male sex hormone.

The research, described in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, constitutes "the first set of studies to demonstrate the relationship between conspicuous consumption and physiological changes in men," according to lead author Gad Saad. An associate professor of marketing at Concordia University in Montreal, Saad holds the wonderfully titled Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption.

Evolutionary psychology, a discipline which looks at our brains and behavior as products of an evolutionary process, has taken something of a hit of late. Newsweek recently published a lengthy, skeptical essay questioning its theoretical underpinnings, which Saad quickly rebutted on his Psychology Today blog.

Whatever its limitations, the field continues to produce fascinating research, and Saad has now produced physiological evidence to back up the notion that — in his words — there is a "link between sports cars and male-based sexual signaling." In other words, a middle-aged, divorced businessman can rationalize all he wants about his reasons for buying a Ferrari, but his testosterone levels reveal what is really, er, driving him.

Testosterone is a hormone found in both males and females, but men have a far higher amount of it in their bodies. The level of production increases dramatically around puberty, causing boys' voices to deepen, and facial and body hair to develop.

"Although testosterone's primary function is to help differentiate and maintain men's sexual organs from those of women's, it also acts in ways that provide men with heightened levels of energy, libidinal drive, competitiveness and status-seeking behavior," according to the paper. "In short (thanks to the hormone), men become adapted for the tasks that enable them to survive and outcompete rivals in courtship."

Saad and his co-author, doctoral student John Vongas, assembled a group of male Canadian college students for their study. Thirty-nine of them participated in the on-the-road experiment, in which they spent one hour driving a 2006 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet, and one hour driving a "dilapidated 1990 Toyota Camry wagon."

At the wheel of each vehicle, they spent 30 minutes driving through downtown Montreal and 30 minutes on an open highway. Their testosterone levels were measured via saliva samples taken at the start of the test and every 30 minutes thereafter until its conclusion.

"Testosterone levels were more responsive when driving the new Porsche than when driving the decrepit Toyota (wagon)," the researchers report. "Endowing the men with a vehicle that few individuals could afford prompted their testosterone levels to rise significantly, suggesting that conspicuous consumption may trigger an endocrinological response in men that mimics the one elicited during competition (for female companionship)."

Saad and Vongas had hypothesized that city driving would have a bigger impact on testosterone levels, since more people would presumably notice the high-priced, high-status vehicle, and "social wins or losses loom larger if there is an audience." In fact, while levels of the hormone shot up following both the city and highway excursions, the increase was slightly greater after the men took the Porsche out on the open road.

This raises an obvious question: Isn't it possible the higher horsepower level of the Porsche was a direct catalyst for the higher testosterone levels? Could simply being in control of a powerful machine be a masculine turn-on, regardless of whether it increases his status or attractiveness to potential mates?

Saad is doubtful. "The participants in our study were certainly not driving quickly, as they were instructed to follow the posted speed limits," he noted in a follow-up message. "Hence, whereas the power of the engine might have yielded an endocrinological response, it is unlikely to have done so in the context of our experiment."

A second experiment, conducted in a conference room rather than on the highway, led to more nuanced results. Saad hypothesized that "men would experience significant drops in their testosterone levels upon witnessing the flamboyant consumption displays of another man," and that the drop would be more dramatic if the experiment was conducted by a female moderator.

But when that scenario was acted out as part of an experiment, the test subjects' testosterone levels remained unchanged when a man served as moderator, and actually increased when a woman played that role. While Saad and Vongas offer several possible reasons for these results, one could conclude that testosterone levels are not all that easily intimidated.

But they do respond to an impressive set of wheels. Gentlemen, start your engines.

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