Testosterone may make men more sociable

One study 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 testes, but also in the cortex of the adrenal gland. It plays a key role in the development of male sex organs, but it also has other effects on the body. At puberty, it causes growth of facial and pubic hair, an increase in the size and strength of muscles and bones, and a deepening of the voice. Testosterone plays an important role in regulating sexual desire, but it also contributes to baldness later in life.

Studies have linked high levels of testosterone to increased aggression in animals. Despite the myth that testosterone has the same effect in men, the relationship between testosterone and aggression in humans is less clear. Other human studies have reported a positive association between testosterone levels and aggression, but the effect is virtually negligible.

Recent studies have indicated that testosterone can 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 appropriate behaviors to achieve and maintain 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 testosterone effects. 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 created an experiment.

Participants were 120 healthy men. Their average age was 21 years. They were instructed to abstain from alcohol, caffeine and tobacco for 24 hours before the test session. They were randomly divided into two groups.

One group had testosterone gel applied to their shoulders and arms at the beginning 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.

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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. Learning consisted of participants recognizing, through trial and error, which symbol is most frequently 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 won. 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 rewards for themselves, compared to situations where they received rewards for someone else or no one. Although, participants in the testosterone group learned just as quickly when they gained rewards for themselves as when they gained rewards for someone else.

The study makes a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge about the effects of testosterone on male behavior. However, it should be taken into account that the sample was composed exclusively of young men. Results in men of different ages may not be the same. Furthermore, researchers have only focused on testosterone, while studies have shown that its effects on behavior depend on interactions with other hormones.


Can testosterone modulate prosocial learning in healthy men? A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of testosterone administration

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