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Published October 11, 2016 | Published + Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

Testosterone causes both prosocial and antisocial status-enhancing behaviors in human males


Although popular discussion of testosterone's influence on males often centers on aggression and antisocial behavior, contemporary theorists have proposed that it instead enhances behaviors involved in obtaining and maintaining a high social status. Two central distinguishing but untested predictions of this theory are that testosterone selectively increases status-relevant aggressive behaviors, such as responses to provocation, but that it also promotes nonaggressive behaviors, such as generosity toward others, when they are appropriate for increasing status. Here, we tested these hypotheses in healthy young males by injecting testosterone enanthate or a placebo in a double-blind, between-subjects, randomized design (n = 40). Participants played a version of the Ultimatum Game that was modified so that, having accepted or rejected an offer from the proposer, participants then had the opportunity to punish or reward the proposer at a proportionate cost to themselves. We found that participants treated with testosterone were more likely to punish the proposer and that higher testosterone levels were specifically associated with increased punishment of proposers who made unfair offers, indicating that testosterone indeed potentiates aggressive responses to provocation. Furthermore, when participants administered testosterone received large offers, they were more likely to reward the proposer and also chose rewards of greater magnitude. This increased generosity in the absence of provocation indicates that testosterone can also cause prosocial behaviors that are appropriate for increasing status. These findings are inconsistent with a simple relationship between testosterone and aggression and provide causal evidence for a more complex role for testosterone in driving status-enhancing behaviors in males.

Additional Information

© 2016 National Academy of Sciences. Edited by Bruce S. McEwen, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, and approved August 16, 2016 (received for review May 23, 2016). Published online before print September 26, 2016. We thank Pierre Wydoodt for his assistance with the early stages of data analysis. This research was funded by the FP7-People Intra-European Fellowship 235076 (to J.-C.D.). It was also performed within the framework of the Laboratory of Excellence (LABEX) ANR-11-LABEX-0042 of Université de Lyon within the program Investissements d'Avenir (ANR-11-IDEX-0007) operated by the French National Research Agency (to J.-C.D.). This work was also supported by grants from the Agence Nationale pour la Recherche (ANR 'Brain Choice' n°14-CE13-0006) (to J.-C.D.). Author contributions: J.-C.D. and J.P.O. designed research; J.-C.D., S.D., A.P., T.F., and J.J.N. performed research; S.D. analyzed data; and J.-C.D. and S.D. wrote the paper. The authors declare no conflict of interest. This article is a PNAS Direct Submission. This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1608085113/-/DCSupplemental.

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Published - 11633.full.pdf

Supplemental Material - pnas.201608085SI.pdf


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