The trouble with testosterone: confidence, aggression and dominance

by May 20, 2012Confidence0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
Watching the demise of my football team’s champions league hopes, and being all too aware of not only stress levels but also how my optimism and confidence gave way to despondency as hopes began to fade, I coped by an intellectual defence. I begun to think again about sport and hormones and managed my disappointment by  trying to make sense of the contradictory role that testosterone plays,  in male lives particularly but also in females. A recent study   by  Leander van der Meij of the VU University, Amsterdam showed that testosterone levels increase when watching football matches, and the researchers suggest that this is linked to the response to threat and to dominance levels [1]. Indeed another study just published showed that males when given artificial does of testosterone stare for longer at faces which represent threat, even when these faces are out of awareness[2]. We have known for a while that sports players have higher levels when playing at home and when playing fierce rivals, and even found that male  Obama supporters had higher levels than McCain supporters on the night when the last presidential election results were announced. Such research gets right to the heart of much nature-nurture debate. While we are often saddled with our testosterone levels from pre-birth, and indeed much research suggests that prenatal testosterone levels influences a range of behaviours from sexual choice to the toys we play with, levels rise and fall in response to specific circumstances and in all likelihood particular cultural influences. Southern American men, for example, tend to respond more reactively to potential threat than their northern counterparts.

Another recent study suggested that in male rats at least testosterone seemed to act as a kind of antidepressant when administered to socially isolated ones [3]. Yet it seems that it for humans it is those with already higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, that have the most raised levels after victory, albeit victory in computer games [4]. We also know that in humans both females and males who are seriously depressed often have considerably lower levels of testosterone than control groups [5], which suggests that confidence levels and optimism are strongly linked to this hormone. A fascinating new theory  [6] just published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology, has recently been proposed to explain some of these issues. It seems that winners have higher levels of testosterone than losers both pre and post-encounter. It seems likely that testosterone levels do indeed rise in response to challenge, but are also higher anyway when mood is more positive and confident, such as when people feel upbeat and expect to win. It seems that there is no rise in testosterone levels when victory is anticipated but there is no positive mood. Thus it seems that testosterone functions as a pleasure hormone and is released when humans expect satisfaction, such as anticipating a good result. The argument is that higher levels decrease anxious feelings, elevate our moods, which in turn increases assertiveness and also often aggressiveness. Maybe not much comfort to despondent Spurs supporters who have not grown up to be confident.

[1]        L. van der Meij, M. Almela, V. Hidalgo, C. Villada, H. IJzerman, P. A. M. van Lange, and A. Salvador, ‘Testosterone and Cortisol Release among Spanish Soccer Fans Watching the 2010 World Cup Final’, PloS one, vol. 7, no. 4, p. e34814, 2012.

[2]        D. Terburg, H. Aarts, and J. van Honk, ‘Testosterone Affects Gaze Aversion From Angry Faces Outside of Conscious Awareness’, Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 459–463, 2012.

[3]        N. Carrier and M. Kabbaj, ‘Testosterone and imipramine have antidepressant effects in socially isolated male but not female rats’, Hormones and Behavior, 2012.

[4]        S. Zilioli and N. V. Watson, ‘The hidden dimensions of the competition effect: Basal cortisol and basal testosterone jointly predict changes in salivary testosterone after social victory in men’, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2012.

[5]        E. J. Giltay, D. Enter, F. G. Zitman, B. W. J. H. Penninx, J. van Pelt, P. Spinhoven, and K. Roelofs, ‘Salivary testosterone: Associations with depression, anxiety disorders, and antidepressant use in a large cohort study’, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 2012.

[6]        K. Chichinadze, A. Lazarashvili, N. Chichinadze, and L. Gachechiladze, ‘Testosterone dynamics during encounter: role of emotional factors’, Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, pp. 1–10, 2012.

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