A study has found that administering a single dose of testosterone gel to healthy men improved how quickly they learned to perform prosocial tasks.
Testosterone is one of the main male sex hormones. It is produced mainly in the testicles, but also in the cortex of the adrenal gland. It plays a key role in the development of the male sexual organs, but it also produces other effects in the body. At puberty, it causes the growth of facial and pubic hair, the increase in the size and strength of muscles and bones, and the deepening of the voice. Testosterone plays an important role in regulating sexual desire, but it also contributes to baldness in later life.
Studies have linked elevated testosterone levels to increased aggression in animals. Despite the myth that testosterone produces the same effect in men, the relationship between testosterone and aggression in humans is less clear. Other human studies reported a positive association between testosterone levels and aggressiveness, but the effect is virtually negligible.
Recent studies have indicated that testosterone might also induce prosocial behaviors, such as making people more likely to offer fair deals or to cooperate better with others during competitions. To explain this link, scientists have proposed the so-called “social status hypothesis,” which suggests that testosterone promotes behaviors appropriate to achieving and maintaining social status. Thus, the effects of testosterone on behavior would depend on the context.
A group of Chinese scientists decided to test the social status hypothesis of the effects of testosterone. They reasoned that if this hypothesis is correct, participants given testosterone would increase their rate of learning a task that increases their social status. To verify this, these researchers devised an experiment.
The participants were 120 healthy men. Their median age was 21 years. They were asked to refrain from alcohol, caffeine, and smoking for 24 hours prior to the testing session. They were randomly divided into two groups.
One group had testosterone gel applied to their shoulders and upper arms at the start of the experiment. Participants in the other group were given a placebo (a similar-looking hydroalcoholic gel without testosterone). Neither the participants nor the assistant applying the gel knew which gel they were applying. Testosterone is absorbed through the skin and this is a common form of administration.
testosterone and social status
In the study, participants were asked to choose between one of two symbols. One of the symbols had a high reward chance and the other had a low reward chance. The learning consisted of the participants recognizing, through trial and error, which symbol is most often associated with the reward and starting to prefer that symbol.
There were three types of test situations. In the first, participants were told that they would receive whatever rewards they earned. In the second situation, the rewards would go to someone else, while in the third, the rewards would go to no one (control).
The results showed that the group that received the testosterone gel learned faster in all three types of situations. Participants in the placebo group learned faster in situations where they expected to receive the rewards themselves, compared to situations where they earned the rewards for someone else or no one. However, the testosterone group participants learned just as quickly when they earned rewards for themselves and when they earned rewards for someone else .
The study makes a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge about the effects of testosterone on male behavior. However, it must be taken into account that the sample consisted exclusively of young men. The results in men of different ages may not be the same. Furthermore, the researchers focused solely on testosterone, while studies have shown that its effects on behavior depend on interactions with other hormones.