Does Testosterone Make You Dangerous
or a Better Leader?
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August 19, 2016
A. Weinberg, Contributing Columnist

Imagine a bar-room fight with a lot of muscular guys, charged with
alcohol and competition. The tables turn, there are shards of glass
everywhere, and eventually the police show up to kick people out and
calm it all down. The bartender wipes up the spilled drinks and bits of
broken bottle while shaking his head, saying, “Sure was a testosterone-
charged night.”

This is the Hollywood image that many of us have. Men and others with
high levels of testosterone must inherently be more dangerous people,
and once that hormone flies out of control, there's no stopping its
tsunami-like energy.

However, like many preconceptions about sex and gender, it is vital to
question it, and its implications of people's place in the world. Do high
levels of testosterone really cause you to be a worse person and a
danger to society?

Studies compiled in 2012 by Menelaos L. Batrinos, from the Athens
University Medical School in Kifisia, Greece, do confirm some
stereotypes about the way testosterone behaves. For example,
testosterone levels seem to be higher in individuals with aggressive
behavior, for example, in prisoners who have committed violent crimes.
Additionally, testosterone tends to increase in aggressive phases of
sports games, and in winners of competitions, dominance trials, or
people in confrontations with opponents (as in my Hollywood example
listed above). The good news is that there are other hormones that
work to balance things out in day-to-day functioning. Testosterone
activates subcortical areas of the brain to produce aggression, while
cortisol and serotonin act antagonistically to reduce those effects. In
other words, even those with a higher levels in general aren't going
around on a constant testosterone high. It is a hormone that is
activated by certain things, but isn't consistently out of control.

Many studies, however, show that while this supposed rage hormone
can be dangerous when activated, it doesn't necessarily make you a
worse person overall, in your dealings with others and in the majority
of situations.

Testosterone Has No Effect on Diplomacy

One of society's important questions about this hormone is whether it
has an effect on the way people lead. Many who possess political and
economic power are men, and there are some who wonder whether
that could, in fact, be a danger.

Niklaus Zethraeus from the Stockholm School of Economics was familiar
with the theories that sex hormones may affect economic behavior,
including risk taking and reciprocal fairness. He wanted to test what
would really happen, so in 2012 he conducted a study with 200 healthy
postmenopausal women ages 50-65. They were randomly assigned to
four weeks of treatment with estrogen, testosterone, or placebo.

During those four weeks, they underwent economic experiments that
measured altruism, reciprocal fairness, trust, trustworthiness, and risk

The results? Neither estrogen nor testosterone affected any of those

In other words, skills needed for most leadership positions won't
necessarily be corrupted—or at least, you can't blame it on hormones.

The Fairer Sex? Testosterone Actually Increases Fairness

Wait, this sounds like a contradiction. Obviously, one of those “more
studies are needed” situations, but in another experiment, testosterone
did have an effect: a positive one.

In 2009, Christoph Eisenegger from the Royal Holloway University and
Michael Naef from the University of Zurich, discovered an interesting

They tested 120 women (Researchers wanted to use female subjects,
as they did in the previous test, because the effects of artificial
testosterone are better understood in cis-gendered ladies) who took
part in a game to determine the distribution of real money.

Both fair and unfair offers were allowed, and the person could either
accept or decline the offer. However, if they didn't come to an
agreement, neither would receive any money.

Women on testosterone acted more fairly and had fewer conflicts in

However, interestingly enough, test subjects who thought they had
been treated with testosterone, whether they had or not, acted in
accordance with the stereotype of being aggressive and unfair, in
contrast to those who thought they had received the placebo, who just
acted “naturally.”

Be Aggressive: Men on Testosterone

As mentioned, many scientists prefer to use women as test subjects,
given that the effects of artificial testosterone are better understood in
their bodies.

Dr. Justin Carré from the Nippising University in Canada, was curious to
see what would happen with men.

In 2009, he recruited 16 healthy young male volunteers who took
either a placebo or testosterone, and studied structures such as the
amygdala, hypothalamus, and the periaqueductal grey area.

In addition, the test subjects received a drug that would suppress their
testosterone, so all study participants had the same level to start out
with. In other words, those who got testosterone as opposed to
placebo only had enough to get back to their regular everyday quantity
of the hormone.

Results confirmed suspicions: Men who received testosterone had
increased reactivity of the amygdala, hypothalamus, and periaqueductal
grey area when they were primed with angry faces, compared with
those who took the placebo.

Perhaps testosterone does make us more reactive to aggression itself.
According to Carré, "We were able to show for the first time that
increasing levels of testosterone within the normal physiological range
can have a profound effect on brain circuits that are involved in threat-
processing and human aggression."

However, he also clarifies that more studies are needed, saying: "Our
current work is examining the extent to which a single administration of
testosterone influences aggressive and competitive behavior in men."

Testosterone: The Jury Is Still Out?

So, why are there still so many contradictory results?

It would seem, given the current research, that certain reactions are
activated more readily with higher levels of testosterone, such as
aggression, competition, and leadership status.

However, in some cases, it can be a reverse reaction. Being in
competitive situations or acquiring increased status lifts quantities of
testosterone, too. In research conducted by Dr. Amy Cuddy, a social
psychologist from the University of Princeton, she talks about these
reverse reactions in which certain physical modifications and changes in
status can actually significantly raise or decrease hormone levels.

While, luckily, no convincing evidence is offered in regard to being an
inherently better or worse leader, researcher Christoph Eisenegger
posits an interesting theory.   Perhaps testosterone doesn't increase
aggressiveness, but rather a higher sensitivity to social status.

In animals with simple social systems, aggressiveness is equivalent to a
higher social status, so testosterone is equal to aggression. On the
other hand, in more socially complex human environments, aggression
is not always directly equal to social status, so there isn't that neat 1:1

So, if you are a person with higher levels, don't worry too much and
don't feel like a bad human being. Just know that certain things might
push your buttons more, but that if you're aware, you can keep it
under control like anyone else.   

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