Research from the University of Zurich overturns the notion that testosterone causes aggressive, egocentric, and risky behavior. The new study shows that the sexual hormone with the aggressive reputation can, in fact, encourage fair behaviors if this serves to ensure one's own status.
"We wanted to verify how the hormone affects social behavior," explained study author Dr. Christoph Eisenegger. "We were interested in the question: what is truth, and what is myth?"
For the study, published in Nature, 120 test subjects took part in a behavioral experiment where the distribution of a real amount of money was decided. The rules allowed both fair and unfair offers. The negotiating partner could subsequently accept or decline the offer. The fairer the offer, the less probable a refusal by the negotiating partner. If no agreement was reached, neither party earned anything.
Before the game the test subjects were administered either a dose of 0.5 mg testosterone or a corresponding placebo. "If one were to believe the common opinion, we would expect subjects who received testosterone to adopt aggressive, egocentric, and risky strategies - regardless of the possibly negative consequences on the negotiation process," Eisenegger said.
But the study's results contradicted this view dramatically. Test subjects with an artificially enhanced testosterone level generally made better, fairer offers than those who received placebos, thus reducing the risk of a rejection of their offer to a minimum.
"The preconception that testosterone only causes aggressive or egoistic behavior in humans is thus clearly refuted," sums up Eisenegger. He suggests the findings indicate that the hormone increases the sensitivity for status. For animal species with relatively simple social systems, an increased awareness for status may express itself in aggressiveness. "[But] in the socially complex human environment, pro-social behavior secures status, and not aggression," adds study co-author Michael Naef. "The interplay between testosterone and the socially differentiated environment of humans, and not testosterone itself, probably causes fair or aggressive behavior."
Interestingly, those test subjects who believed they had received the testosterone compound (when they had actually received the placebo) stood out with their conspicuously unfair offers. "It appears that it is not testosterone itself that induces aggressiveness, but rather the myth surrounding the hormone. In a society where qualities and manners of behavior are increasingly traced to biological causes and thereby partly legitimated, this should make us sit up and take notice," the researchers noted in conclusion.
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Source: University of Zurich