Testosterone Research

High levels of testosterone have been linked to aggression, but how true is this claim? Can abnormal levels of testosterone really cause people to be aggressive? Biological explanations of aggression explore testosterone research in an attempt to determine if the hormone can affect aggression levels in humans. Anger is a common emotion, often felt in times of stress, and sometimes, in inappropriate situations. Psychology is heavily invested in how emotions and aggression are intertwined. So, how does testosterone affect aggression?

Testosterone Research Testosterone Research

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore aggression by examining testosterone research.
    • First, to ensure we understand the topic, we will provide a testosterone psychology definition.
    • We will then go on to discuss testosterone function, providing various testosterone psychology examples.
    • Throughout the explanation, we will link testosterone to aggression, and how abnormal levels are implicated in aggression.

    Testosterone Research Chemical form of testosterone StudySmarterFig. 1: Testosterone has been linked to aggression.

    Testosterone Psychology Definition: Testosterone Function

    To understand how testosterone is linked to aggression, we must first establish what testosterone is. Many believe it is a purely masculine hormone, however, this is not necessarily the case.

    Testosterone functions as an androgen (a hormone that plays a role in the development of male characteristics) and as an anabolic steroid (protein building for muscle). It is produced in the gonads (the male testes and the female ovaries) and the adrenal cortex, although it’s produced at a much smaller rate in the female ovaries.

    Hormones act as chemical messengers in the body, stimulating various cells and tissues depending on the reason behind the testosterone secretion.

    The hypothalamus regulates testosterone production in the brain, and the pituitary gland acts as the overseer of the gonads and adrenal glands.

    Testosterone also enables secondary ‘male’ characteristics, such as muscle and skeletal growth, as well as body hair and facial hair. These characteristics tend to be less developed when there is not enough testosterone in the body of males undergoing puberty.

    Did you know? Testosterone is also important in reproductive systems such as sex drive and sexual health.

    Testosterone Psychology Example

    Testosterone is one of the main driving forces behind the actualisation of aggressive behaviours in psychology (Batrinos, 2012). These can manifest as, or through:

    • Anger (thoughts, feelings).

    • Verbal aggressiveness.

    • Dominance.

    • Competitiveness.

    • Physical aggression.

    Amongst other examples. Testosterone in psychology mainly revolves around aggression and the development of male characteristics.

    Testosterone and Aggression: Psychology

    How are testosterone and aggression linked? Well, fluctuating levels of testosterone can have various effects on the body and brain. Testosterone is also closely linked with the brain regions associated with how aggressive behaviours come about—namely, the amygdala.

    Testosterone activates the amygdala, enhancing its resistance to regulation from the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and increasing its emotional reaction to stimuli (Batrinos, 2012). Thus, when something threatening comes along and stimulates the amygdala, the person will have an emotional response.

    High testosterone levels mean that the areas of the brain that usually ‘calm down’ the amygdala if the threat is not as serious as once thought, are no longer as effective. As a result, emotions run higher and aggressive behaviours increase.

    Usually, testosterone is mediated by different brain regions, as well as cortisol and serotonin. In healthy, normal levels, aggression occurs and is mediated correctly, so people can react appropriately to different situations. Without this mediation, aggressive behaviours are more likely to occur.

    High levels of testosterone are linked to dominant, and often times aggressive, behaviours.

    In animals, testosterone affects behaviours differently. However, it is usually linked to aggressive behaviours, such as defending territory and ensuring the male members of the species are the ones to mate with the females.

    Testosterone Research, hand punching a wall, StudySmarterFig. 2: Testosterone affects the amygdala.

    Mazur (1995)

    In this study, researchers measured 4,179 Vietnam veterans’ hormone levels (testosterone, cortisol, and thyroxine). Hormone levels varied with the veterans' age, social status, and race, and interestingly, all three of the aforementioned hormones were related to deviant behaviour.

    They found that testosterone levels were positively correlated with aggressive behaviours.

    Mazur and Michalek (1998)

    In this study, male air force veterans who were going through a divorce had higher levels of testosterone compared with those who were currently married. This suggested that testosterone levels are not constant. They vary depending on a person’s social standing and context.

    They also suggested low testosterone levels in married men could explain low criminality rates amongst married men, and how rising levels of testosterone that occur leading up to a divorce may explain increased levels of abuse towards the wives.

    Psychological Effects of Testosterone: Evaluation

    Considering the above, it’s important to evaluate the studies and research surrounding testosterone and its association with aggression.

    Kreuz and Rose (1972)

    In this study, they measured the testosterone levels of 21 young, white male prisoners who had a history of aggressive

    behaviour, and who had displayed aggression whilst in prison.

    They tested the participants using the Buss-Durkee Hostility Inventory, the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, and the Institute for Personality and Ability Testing Anxiety Scale Questionnaire.

    • Researchers found that of the 10 participants who had committed violent crimes or had a history of aggressive behaviours had higher levels of testosterone compared to the 11 participants who didn’t have this history.

    The results suggest that higher levels of testosterone are related to aggressive or violent behaviours, supporting the argument for high testosterone levels linking to aggression. The sample size for this study was low, however, reducing its generalisability. Considering how the study was conducted on violent prisoners, generalisability is lowered even further, as it's not applicable to the public.

    Dabbs et al. (1987)

    Dabbs et al. (1987) measured the testosterone levels in the saliva of 89 prisoners.

    • Researchers found that nine out of 11 inmates with low testosterone levels had committed nonviolent crimes in the past. When we compare this to prisoners with high levels of testosterone, we find startling differences. 10 out of 11 inmates with the highest testosterone levels had committed violent crimes in the past.

    The results suggest again that high levels of testosterone are linked to more aggressive or violent behaviours, even when associated with crime. This study, as well as Kreuz and Rose’s, has a relatively low sample size and is quite specific as it focuses on prisoners, affecting generalisability.

    Mazur (1985)

    In his analysis of aggression and dominance, Mazur found that high testosterone levels are directly related to dominant behaviours, specifically, aggressive behaviours. Criminals and those involved in military professions who had high levels of aggression were found to also have high levels of testosterone.

    However, this does not mean high levels of testosterone result in aggression every time. Mediating factors, such as social contexts and the individual levels of control, especially when we consider serotonin and cortisol, affect how these aggressive behaviours manifest.

    Mazur suggested that there isn’t a completely causal relationship, either. Testosterone is associated with aggressive behaviours, but we can’t say that it’s the direct and only cause, it is only correlational.

    Wagner et al. (1979)

    In this study, Wagner et al. (1979) analysed the effects of varying hormone levels on biting behaviours (aggressive behaviours) in mice. They referred to these as bite-attack levels.

    • Castration affected hormones in male mice and the bite-attack levels lowered upon castration. However, these mice showed an increase in bite-attack levels after being injected with testosterone to regain normal hormonal levels.

    The results show that testosterone is important in the expression of aggressive behaviours in male mice and is critical for bite-attack behaviours. Some suggest this study is a good model for studying pharmacological and physiological effects on aggressive behaviours.

    Motta et al. (2018)

    Motta et al. (2018) investigated testosterone treatment and anger expression in transmen. They assessed 52 transmen diagnosed with gender dysphoria through questionnaires (self-report)

    Over seven months of gender-affirming hormonal treatment, anger expression and arousal control increased in transmen. They found that psychological support can help reduce angry behaviours and overall help with transitioning.

    Correlation versus Causation: Van Goozen et al. (1995)

    A lot of research tends to suggest there is a correlation between high levels of testosterone and higher levels of aggression, but they struggle to identify a causal link. We cannot conclusively say, for instance, in Dabbs et al. (1987), that high levels of testosterone caused more aggressive behaviours.

    Aggressive behaviours may cause higher levels of testosterone, for instance.

    Van Goozen et al. (1995) investigated how aggression levels changed in transsexuals, both male-to-female and female-to-male, and provided more ground for cause and effect. The study included 35 female-to-male participants and 15 male-to-female participants.

    • They found that those transitioning from female to male had higher levels of aggression (through self-reported data) after they began hormone therapy (testosterone), including increased levels of aggression proneness, sexual arousability and spatial ability performance.
    • Male-to-female participants reported lower levels of aggression after taking anti-androgens, showing decreased levels of anger and aggression proneness, sexual arousability and spatial ability decreases.

    Self-report data is a weakness of the study, however, as although experimental manipulation increases the evidence for cause and effect, self-report data is prone to subjectiveness and not always reliable.

    Testosterone Research - Key takeaways

    • Testosterone is an androgen (male hormone) and an anabolic steroid. It aids in the development of secondary male characteristics such as hair growth on the face and body, muscle and skeletal development, and sexual and reproductive health.
    • Testosterone is said to be one of the main driving forces behind aggressive behaviours such as anger, verbal aggressiveness, and dominance.
    • Testosterone activates the amygdala, enhancing its resistance to regulation from the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and increasing its emotional reaction to stimuli (Batrinos, 2012). Thus, when something threatening comes along and stimulates the amygdala, the person may have an emotional response.
    • Multiple studies show criminals with violent pasts who committed violent crimes had higher levels of testosterone, whilst criminals with nonviolent pasts who committed nonviolent crimes had lower levels of testosterone.
    • A lot of testosterone research suggests there is a correlation rather than a causal interaction between testosterone levels and aggression. Van Goozen et al. (1995) experimentally manipulated levels of testosterone, establishing a stronger cause and effect.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Testosterone Research

    What is testosterone in psychology?

    Testosterone is a hormone produced by the gonads and the adrenal gland that plays a role in the development of male characteristics. It is also associated with certain behaviours, such as aggression, dominance, competitiveness, and self-control/confidence. 

    Is testosterone really that important?

    Yes, especially for males during puberty. Testosterone is important in healthy development in males, and somewhat in females. In men, it is associated heavily with regulating sex drive, bone mass and fat distribution, muscle mass and other sexual health-related functions.

    How does testosterone affect mental health?

    As testosterone affects the amygdala by enhancing its emotional reactivity and reducing its inhibition by the prefrontal cortex, it affects emotional behaviours. This can translate to an effect on mental health. Low levels have been associated with depression, irritability, and other mental health-related issues. 

    StudySmarter is not a licensed medical practitioner. This information is for educational purposes only.

    Does testosterone change your personality?

    If levels are too high or too low, yes, it can affect your personality. If you have high levels of testosterone, research suggests you will show more dominant, aggressive behaviours. Low levels may produce the opposite.

    Does testosterone make you angry?

    Testosterone levels can facilitate feelings of anger, yes. However, research is often correlational, not causal. Whilst high levels of testosterone are correlated with higher levels of aggression, we do not know if testosterone causes high levels of aggression, or is a result. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: The hypothalamus regulates testosterone production in the brain, and the pituitary gland acts as the overseer of the gonads and adrenal glands. 

    True or False: Low levels of testosterone are linked to dominant, and often times aggressive, behaviours. 

    Who suggested low testosterone levels in married men could explain low criminality rates amongst married men, and rising levels of testosterone that occur during a divorce may explain increased levels of abuse towards the wives?

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