Today we welcome guest author Sarah E. Hill, Ph.D., who leads evolutionary psychology research at Texas Christian University. Her primary research interest is the effect of hormonal birth control on women. She is the author of a book on that very topic: “This is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences,” which illustrates the many ways the pill changes women. To learn more about how the pill affects you, check out this episode of Bulletproof Radio.
The Birth Control Pill and… Music? Sex Hormones and Your Ability to Recognize Courtship Cues
by Dr. Sarah E. Hill
Even though this might feel like a reductionist way to see the world, sexual motivation is, ultimately, at the heart of many things that we do. It’s one of those pesky byproducts of being designed by a process that rewards gene transmission. A lot of our traits – especially those traits that come into full bloom right around the time in our life when fertility is high – are maintained as part of the human nature playbook because they helped one of our ancestors reproduce.
This means that sexual motivation – which is a psychological program coordinated by our sex hormones – is related to a lot of things that don’t feel like they have anything to do with sex.
Outward signs of sexual motivation
Now, some of the things that we do to attract partners are pretty obvious. Like, doing things to look attractive. This is something that women do for lots of reasons, but one of those reasons is that it increases attractiveness to men.
And this isn’t me being sexist, here, this is just what the research tells us. When women are looking to attract a man’s attention or entice a partner they already have, one of the first (and most effective) things that most women do is spend a little extra effort on their appearance
For example, research finds that women’s mating motivations are at the heart of things like clothing choice and cosmetics use, as well as doing things like dieting, exercising, and visiting tanning beds. Mating effort begets beautification effort, and although this isn’t the only reason that women like to make themselves look good, it’s one of them.
The relationship between mating behavior and music
Now, other things that mating effort might be linked to are less obvious.
Take music, for instance. Music is interesting because it’s one of those things that all cultures create, but without an obvious survival purpose (you can’t French horn your way out of a wildebeest stampede). This is usually the hallmark of a behavior that is maintained to serve a courtship function.
Consistent with interpretation, almost all organisms that create complex acoustic signals, do so for the purposes of mate attraction. This is why birds sing, howler monkeys howl, and red deer roar. Acoustic signals make a nice medium for discriminating between potential partners because they provide all sorts of information that is useful for females (they’re usually the choosers) to use to determine whether a male is of high quality or not.
This is because rhythm is a product of the nervous system. And nervous systems that are better put-together can produce more coordinated, complex rhythms than nervous systems that are less well-put-together. This is why so many species use rhythmic displays such as song and dance as a means of mate attraction. They tell us something about the individual’s motor control, as well as their self-confidence and creativity, which are other traits that bespeak high genetic quality.
There is no reason to think that humans are any exception to this rule. Rhythmic displays created by whales, wrens, frogs, flies, honeybees, and humans all show off the functioning of the nervous systems to prospective mates. The Keith Richards effect – where a kind of road-worn guy with good musical skills can get access to an almost alarming number of sexual partners – is no joke. This is why almost all adolescent males eventually try their hand at the guitar. A well-executed rhythmic display attracts mates. If you don’t believe me, ask Keith.
Now, given that any courtship display that’s worth doing is going to have an audience that is attuned to all of its brilliant rhythmic nuances, we should also find that women’s attunement to rhythmic displays is similarly tied to mating effort.
Although this is a relatively new idea (we’re actually actively researching this question in my lab right now), research in non-humans is largely supportive of the general idea that fertility may increase females’ attunement to the quality of rhythmic displays. Women’s ability to discriminate between high- and low-quality displays should be more pronounced at high fertility and lower at other times in the cycle because conception is possible.
Artificial hormones mess with your ability to recognize attraction
So, what does all of this mean for women on the pill? Well, there is a lot of research that needs to be done on this topic before we can know for sure. But, I think that there’s a good chance that the pill might influence women’s direct mate attraction efforts (beautification and the like), as well as their attunement to courtship cues, like music.
I say this for a couple of reasons.
First, this is what theory would suggest. Sex hormones fuel mating effort. Mating effort drives mate attraction behaviors and attunement to courtship cues. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to predict that preventing the hormonal surge that prompts mating effort (both in terms of releasing an egg and wanting sex) will also suppress behavioral offshoots of this same motivational pathway.
Second, although we need more hard data on this, this idea is something that has come up more times than I can count when talking to women about their experiences of being on and off the pill. Many women I have interviewed have told me that they noticed an uptick in their interest in their appearance after going off the pill that coincided with the return of their sexual desire.
For some, this meant that they started clothes shopping again and growing their hair long after being short for years when they were on the pill. For others, this has meant a renewed interest in healthy eating and working out. For others yet, this has meant cosmetic surgery and teeth whitening.
Now, I don’t know for certain whether the pill, per se, was responsible for any of this. Right now, this evidence is anecdotal. And I’m also not saying that it’s bad to care less about your desirability. Most of us would probably benefit from a healthy dose of “I don’t give a sh** about my appearance”. This is just something that might be worth noting as you consider your options and your experiences.
For me, the most noticeable change was the music thing. And I have since heard this repeated back to me by several other women.
To provide you with some context, I had loved listening to music all through high school and early college years and then, I just…stopped. I never questioned why this happened. I didn’t even notice. I just stopped listening to it, favoring podcasts and NPR when I was traveling or in my car. Although I don’t have perfect documentation of any of this, this change in listening habits corresponded to the time that I began the pill.
Now, flash forward eight-ish years (a couple of months after going off the pill), I started downloading new playlists to listen to in my car for the first time in forever. I got a subscription to Spotify. I finally downloaded Pandora. It was only after a friend had commented on my rekindled interest in music that I even had my attention drawn to the fact.
Even then, I figured that my renewed love of music was probably just a byproduct of needing more things to listen to since I was working out a lot more than I used to (that happened to me, too). And although I can’t be 100% certain about the pill having anything to do with any of this (you can bet we’re collecting data on this, too), I would be very surprised if it didn’t. Mating effort and attunement to courtship cues are driven by sex hormones. There is good reason to think that – at least for some women – these things might change on the pill.
So, sex is more than just sex. And having a diminished desire for actual sex (like, sex-sex) may be a canary in the coalmine of much more pervasive changes in women’s motivational states. While a lot of this thinking is still in its infancy, it’s worth considering if these outcomes might be meaningful to you.