Can a spit test tell us about reactions to presidential elections?

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: George Lawie via Flickr

Photo: George Lawie via Flickr

The mouth, former Surgeon General David Satcher once observed, is “a mirror for general health and well-being.”

For some of us, the mouth may also be a mirror of post-election reactions to victory and defeat.

Studies have shown that men’s testosterone levels rise and fall in response to winning and losing sporting events, chess matches and other interpersonal dominance contests. Researchers were interested in seeing if the same might hold true for the vicarious experience of watching one’s candidate win or lose in an election.

On Nov. 3, 2008, the day before the election that pitted Democrat Barack Obama against Republican John McCain and Independent Robert Barr, a team of researchers from Duke University and the University of Michigan collected saliva samples from 183 participants, then sent them home with test kits and asked them to take samples of their own spit as they watched news of election returns roll in the following night, Nov. 4.

The saliva tests revealed that for male Obama supporters, salivary testosterone levels were sustained as the night wore on, in apparent defiance of the typical circadian decline. The testosterone levels of backers of the losing candidates McCain and Barr dropped more than they normally would have during those hours of night. The findings about female voters were null, researchers concluded.

“The present results suggest that male, but not female, voters respond with testosterone changes to the outcome of presidential elections as if they had personally fought to ascend a social dominance hierarchy,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters’ Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Election,” which was published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

The paper was included in a short November piece in the Atlantic that explored voters’ responses to electoral defeat. Another study mentioned by author Ben Rowen looked at voters’ reactions to the 2012 presidential race.

The researchers found that for Republicans, the emotional shock of Mitt Romney’s defeat was pronounced, but that the anguish abated within a week.

“We find that the pain of losing an election is much larger than the joy of winning one, but that this happiness loss is short-lived,” the researchers observed.

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