The Upside of Testosterone

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Yes, it can be a catalyst for aggressive behavior. It can also inspire generosity.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Testosterone gets a lot of bad press. The hormone, which is found at much higher levels in men than women, has been blamed for everything from a lack of interpersonal empathy to the 2008 financial crisis.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that, when a philanthropist makes a major donation to a charity, his behavior may be driven by — that’s right — testosterone.

That’s the clear implication of newly published research, which concludes that the much-maligned hormone “can cause pro-social behavior in males.”

“These findings are inconsistent with a simple relationship between testosterone and aggression,” a research team led by Jean-Claude Dreher of Trinity College Dublin writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rather, they support the theory that, at least in humans, testosterone drives what the researchers call “status-enhancing behaviors.” For some men, in certain situations, that can certainly translate into increased aggression. But the desire for social standing can also compel a rich person to raise his community profile by giving money to build a new fire station.

While this is not a new concept, this study is the first to establish a direct cause and effect. It featured 40 “healthy young males” who were injected with either testosterone or a placebo before playing a highly competitive computer game.

Specifically, they played a modified version of the Ultimatum Game, in which one player receives a sum of money, and then proposes how it should be divided between himself and the other player. “Having accepted or rejected an offer from the proposer,” the researchers explain, “participants had the opportunity to punish or reward the proposer at proportionate cost to themselves.”

The desire for social standing can compel a rich person to raise his community profile by giving money to build a new fire station.

Would higher testosterone stimulate aggressive responses to such offers? The answer depended upon the whether the player was getting dissed.

“Higher testosterone levels were specifically associated with increased punishment of proposers who made unfair offers,” Dreher and his colleagues report. This result suggests the hormone does inspire aggression in response to provocative acts.

However, “when participants administered testosterone received large offers, they were more likely to reward the proposer, and also choose rewards of greater magnitude,” they add. So, when one was responding to a generous offer, the hormone prompted more generosity in return.

It all suggests that “testosterone can indeed cause male aggression,” but this seems to occur “in social contexts were social status may be under threat,” the researchers conclude. In the absence of such a threat, the hormone can actually inspire giving behavior, especially when doing so is “status-enhancing.”

So testosterone does drive a man’s desire to be the alpha dog. But unlike canines, humans can achieve that goal in a variety of ways — and not all of them involve aggression.

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