3.16.2007

Piss Off

We all get a rise, now and again, out of seeing somebody pissed off. Like when your boss scowls after spilling coffee all over his shirt. Or when the girl who used to make fun of your frizzy hair in seventh grade flunks out of college. But most of the time, a friend, boss, or fellow subway rider's angry face is not something I want to see.

However, a new psychology study from the University of Michigan finds that people with high levels of testosterone like seeing angry faces. For these people, an angry facial expression "on a non-conscious level, can be like a tasty morsel that some people will vigorously work for," says Oliver Schultheiss, co-author of the study. Schultheiss says it might be why some people like teasing others so much.

In his experiment, subjects were asked to complete a "learning task"--pressing a sequence of keyboard buttons--after a computer screen flashed either an angry or neutral face. While most of the subjects did not show a learning difference between the two paradigms, the subjects with the highest testosterone levels learned the keyboard sequence better after looking at the angry face.

Well, the high-testosterones may have learned the task better, you say, but does that mean they actually preferred looking at the angry faces? Yes, says lead author of the study, Michelle Wirth: "Better learning of a task associated with anger faces indicates that the anger faces were rewarding, as in a rat that learns to press a lever in order to receive a tasty treat."

Assuming their results are valid, I wonder why these two opposite responses to social cues may have evolved. Why would it be evolutionarily advantageous for humans with lots o' testosterone to like pissing people off? Maybe it led to more fights, more outlets for their aggression...but how did it lead to them producing more offspring?

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