On page 242 of The Moral Animal, Robert Wright states that

In vervet monkey societies, dominant males have more of the neurotransmitter serotonin than do their subordinates. And one study found that in college fraternities, officers, on average, have more serotonin than do their less powerful fraternity brothers.

However, on page 82 of a different book, Scattered: How ADD Originates and What You Can Do About It, Gabor Maté states that

In troops of monkeys, the dominant, most successfully aggressive males have been found to have less serotonin than others. This would seem to prove that low serotonin levels cause aggression. However, the serotonin levels drop only after these males achieve dominant status. So while the relative lack of serotonin may help to maintain the dominant male's aggressive capacities, it could not have caused them.

It seems that Wright (a journalist) is making the complete opposite interpretation of the primate research that Maté (a physician) is, and there doesn't seem to be any subtlety in the context that alleviates the seemingly glaring contradiction, so I'm assuming that one of these two simply misunderstood the research. Who is correct?

(to be clear, both of these people are citing research that others have done, not making claims based on their own research)

  • $\begingroup$ low serotonin levels are linked with depression and low self-esteem, which does not fit with the dominant profile. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2017 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ yes; see the answer below. This is simply a case of a single author misinterpreting a piece of generally accepted research, not an actual disputing of an idea. To be fair, Maté was simply making a tangential point about serotonin in a book written about ADHD. This mistake he made (in my opinion most likely a simple misreading error) does not greatly detract from the main arguments he makes about ADHD in the book. $\endgroup$
    – xdavidliu
    Sep 20, 2017 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


It seems Maté simply misread the research that he cited. The study on this, from 1984, says that

Dominant male adult vervet monkeys have whole-blood serotonin concentrations approximately twice those of subordinate adult males.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. However, one study opposing an idea is no convincing evidence that something is 'wrong' or not. In such cases it's often about methodical differences, interpretation differences or environmental differences that may affect outcomes. In other words, could you explain why you favor your cited study instead of the one in the question opposing that idea? As of now it's more of a comment; a pointer for OP for further reading instead of an answer. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Sep 15, 2017 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that one study opposing an idea is no convincing evidence that something is wrong, but that doesn't apply here because this seems more of a case of Maté (who was not involved in the primate study, and is simply citing it) simply incorrectly parsing what the research actually said; not him arguing one side of position. Additionally, there doesn't actually seem to be any studies that show the opposite, i.e. no one has actually disputed the finding in the 1984 study, e.g. that dominant monkeys have more, not less serotonin. $\endgroup$
    – xdavidliu
    Sep 15, 2017 at 18:40

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