ISSN 1470-3947 (print) | ISSN 1479-6848 (online)

Endocrine Abstracts (2011) 25 SE1.6

The endocrinology of extramarital affairs

Gavin Vinson


School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, London, UK.


There are three types of academic research studies into the origins and maintenance of monogamous as opposed to promiscuous relationships in humans – economic, sociological, and biological – with seemingly little continuity between them. It may be obvious that all three influences can modify sexual behaviour, but it is a fact that though many reproductive strategies exist throughout the animal kingdom – and monogamy is perhaps surprisingly well represented in all groups – relatively few species have the capacity for ‘facultative’ monogamy seen in humans. It seems important to understand the reasons for it, in biological, and also in specifically endocrinological terms.

Among the hormones thought to be involved in pair bonding behaviours, prolactin, vasopressin, and above all testosterone have received attention. Testosterone levels are relatively high in promiscuous males, and several studies have shown that they are reduced in monogamous relationships, triggered apparently by proximity to young children. The task is now to identify the causes of this.

One possibility is that the effect is pheromonal, and although previous attempts to identify human pheromones have not uniformly stood the test of time, a recent study claims that a pheromone in teardrops has a testosterone reducing effect.

There are undoubted rewards to be gained from elucidation of these mechanisms. There is apparently a huge market for Viagra. Is there similarly a demand for an agent with the reverse activity?

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