Testosterone: Bad Rep Undeserved

It’s been labelled as the “selfish hormone” responsible for “roid rage,” Wall Street greed and other antisocial behaviour. But new research suggests that testosterone’s bad reputation is largely undeserved.

Far from always increasing aggression and greed, the male hormone can actually encourage decency and fair play, scientists have discovered.

New Scientist magazine reports women who receive a boost of the potent sex hormone act more generously than women on a placebo.

As You Think, You Do

But the hormone’s reputation seemed to precede itself. Those who suspected they had received bona fide testosterone acted more selfishly than those who believed they got the bogus treatment, no matter what they actually received.

It seems because people think testosterone will make them more assertive, they often act that way in a placebo effect. In reality, the researchers found, testosterone pushes men and women to seek higher status.

The Anglo-Swiss researchers used the ‘ultimatum bargaining’ game to test how testosterone would affect behaviour in a group of 121 women.

Fairness Best in Some Situations

The subjects who were given testosterone supplements in fact made much fairer offers in the ultimatum game than those given a placebo, suggesting that the hormone does not promote aggression in these circumstances, but co-operation.

The results support the idea that testosterone promotes status-seeking, and that this can encourage or discourage aggression depending on the circumstances.

Biology “Doesn’t Always Rule”

In the ultimatum game, an unfair offer risks damaging a person’s status and reputation if it is rejected, so co-operative strategies are favoured. But in situations of conflict, as in prisons, a more aggressive and risky strategy may pay off.

Researchers suggest the findings support the idea that no hormone should be labelled “good” or “bad,” because while animal behaviour might be ruled by hormones, human behaviour is far more complex and biology does not always rule.

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