An interesting bit of research suggests that there may be some truth to the sigma male meme that’s been doing the rounds of late. The lone wolf really does stand apart from the rest of the male hierarchy – well, if we’re talking about testosterone levels, that is.
Sigma Male Loners Testosterone
You know what an alpha male is, right? And you know his pathetic alter ego, the beta male? But what about the sigma male? In recent months, this new meme has created yet another kind of man to aspire to be or to mock – depending on your viewpoint.
What you may not know is that there is actually some evidence that the sigma male meme is right when it comes to the masculinising effects of standing outside social norms. Being a lone wolf really does seem to make your testosterone levels go up.
Sigma and alpha are both ‘top dogs’, as it were. Both are what we might call ‘high testosterone’ individuals; but where they differ is in their relation to others. While the alpha male is the immediately identifiable leader of a pack, so to speak, the sigma male deliberately chooses to disengage from the pack and go his own way. This endows him with a mysterious, monkish aura that even the alpha cannot obtain.
The exact origins of the sigma male meme are cloudy, but appear to date back to the early 2010s. Many of the memes take the form of ‘hustle’ memes – often dubbed the ‘sigma male grindset’ – that either parody or unironically take the motivational memes that are so common on Twitter and social media to absurd new heights.
In support of at least some of the less absurd aspects of the meme, a 2014 study from the journal Steroids (yes!) showed, in the case of mice, that social environment significantly determines the amount of testosterone that males produce.
The researchers note the important role of hormone signalling in social interaction, and that social situations, such as different housing densities and situations of stress, have been linked to testicular function and androgen concentration.
They measured the hormones levels of two sets of mice, mice that had lived in cages with five others from birth, and mice that were kept in individual cages.
Alpha and sigma mouse
After two and six months, the researchers measured the amount of testosterone and DHEA circulating in the bodies of the mice. They observed on both occasions that the mice living in isolation manufactured three times as much testosterone as the others. The DHEA concentration – a steroid hormone precursor – was also higher in the isolated animals.
The researchers speculate that the results were caused by the increased stress levels experienced by the mice kept in cages with others. It’s well established that stress levels play a key role in modulating androgen levels, as we’ve recently discussed in an article on the stress hormone cortisol.
Whether the results would be reproduced so strikingly in humans under similar conditions is a fruitful topic for further investigation. It certainly seems plausible that they would. Few would doubt that being immersed in a social setting, such as a busy workplace or a university hall of residence, for long periods of time brings its own unique stresses – stresses that nonetheless can just seem to melt away when we manage to find a solitary moment.
It’s also worthwhile noting the role that seclusion has long played in elite athletic performance. Long, long before Rocky 4, athletes and warriors were retreating to secluded locations to hone their skills in preparation for a coming bout or battle. This study suggests a clear reason why this might work.
Watch this and tell me you don’t feel motivated
Finally, it’s also worth saying higher testosterone levels also seem to be associated with other forms of ‘sigma’ behaviour, as we discussed in a recent article. As we reported, a 2020 study suggested that low testosterone men were likely to go with the herd, whereas high testosterone men were more likely to adopt unpopular positions that put them at odds with the majority.
In this case, though, it is high testosterone causing the sigma behaviour, rather than sigma behaviour – i.e. being isolated from others – that causes the testosterone boost. Either way, it’s clear that testosterone is a very interesting hormone indeed.
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