Naturalizing the Social, and Vice Versa

by Kieran Healy on January 21, 2010

Via Cosma Shalizi, reports of a very interesting piece of work: Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour, C. Eisenegger, M. Naef, R. Snozzi, M. Heinrichs & E. Fehr, Nature 463, 356-359 (21 January 2010). The abstract:

Both biosociological and psychological models, as well as animal research, suggest that testosterone has a key role in social interactions1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Evidence from animal studies in rodents shows that testosterone causes aggressive behaviour towards conspecifics7. Folk wisdom generalizes and adapts these findings to humans, suggesting that testosterone induces antisocial, egoistic, or even aggressive human behaviours. However, many researchers have questioned this folk hypothesis1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, arguing that testosterone is primarily involved in status-related behaviours in challenging social interactions, but causal evidence that discriminates between these views is sparse. Here we show that the sublingual administration of a single dose of testosterone in women causes a substantial increase in fair bargaining behaviour, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions. However, subjects who believed that they received testosterone—regardless of whether they actually received it or not—behaved much more unfairly than those who believed that they were treated with placebo. Thus, the folk hypothesis seems to generate a strong negative association between subjects’ beliefs and the fairness of their offers, even though testosterone administration actually causes a substantial increase in the frequency of fair bargaining offers in our experiment.



Cosma Shalizi 01.21.10 at 9:34 pm

Figure 3 is really very persuasive.


Bill Benzon 01.21.10 at 11:11 pm

I don’t have any particular comment to offer except that this is a fascinating result, to counterpoint a BELIEF about the effects of testosterone against its actual effects. Feels like a very ELEGANT piece of work.


Matt 01.21.10 at 11:20 pm

All the numbered links are no good in the version here- the contain this page as part of them, messing them up. But very interesting.


Alex 01.21.10 at 11:36 pm

I read it on ScienceBlogs a few weeks ago. Fascinating. I recall someone who’d had a balls operation wrote a long piece for the Grauniad years back about his experience of taking artificial testosterone supplements; he reported feeling a surge of confidence, euphoria, risk-loving, and lust.

In the light of these results, you have to wonder to what extent his experience was down to the fact he was conditioned to expect that. And, if he felt a lack of confidence, risk-loving, lust, euphoria etc before getting his dose of testosterone, to what extent that was down to his own expectations…


LizardBreath 01.22.10 at 12:56 am

a long piece for the Grauniad

That sounds like Andrew Sullivan in the NY Times Magazine on being on testosterone supplements. Reading it at the time, I had the same reaction — “I wonder what the psychological effect would have been if he didn’t know it was testosterone.”


Barry 01.22.10 at 2:48 am

“And, if he felt a lack of confidence, risk-loving, lust, euphoria etc before getting his dose of testosterone, to what extent that was down to his own expectations…”

And the psychological effects of that surgery.


jacob 01.22.10 at 4:16 am

Similar to the Guardian piece referenced above was an interview on This American Life back in 2002 with a trans man named Griffin Hansbury. I haven’t relistened to it recently, but what I mostly remember was his describing the his increase in lust and the objectification of women.


Doctor Science 01.22.10 at 4:28 am

I saw this when it first came out, and it is a brilliant piece of research. Nurture takes nature *down*, one-on-one.


Ted 01.22.10 at 4:39 am


The self-reported effects of one guy’s testosterone hit are one thing, but how that plays out in an interactive social game context is quite another. The stereotype/cliche suggests a mass rape, pillage, and plunder rumble. The research in the OP suggests a much more nuanced and fascinating impact.

The most worthwhile observations of testosterone’s social implications come from teachers at all boy’s schools. The most ignorant and lame takes from Women’s Studies types.


Ted 01.22.10 at 4:45 am

Lizard Breath

Good point about AS. But remember, he started taking testosterone to deal with AIDS-related debilitation. I’d say, he’d probably adjusted his idea of ‘normal’ to that listless, exhausted, depressed doom that must accompany a predicted death sentence. So when he took the testosterone, his change in mood, etc. was coming off a pretty low base. True, rather than thinking “oh, it’s good to be like a normal guy again” he might have mistaken the improvement for transforming into The Hulk. ;)


Ted 01.22.10 at 4:51 am

Doctor Science

Nature/nurture is a false dichotomy, as anybody who has ever raised children will attest.


Popeye 01.22.10 at 7:20 am

The most worthwhile observations of testosterone’s social implications come from teachers at all boy’s schools. The most ignorant and lame takes from Women’s Studies types.

That’s quite the commitment to science you got there, Mr. Folk Wisdom. Did you even bother to read this post?


bad Jim 01.22.10 at 11:25 am

It’s said that fish don’t know what water tastes like. Actually, that’s said of people, too. Even if you haven’t studied the human genome you might have noticed that we don’t have enough different kinds of jeans to make everyone look good. My niece swears by Diesel, I’m partial to Levi’s 527, my brother lets nothing between him and his 501’s.


belle le triste 01.22.10 at 11:53 am

my brother lets nothing between him and his 501’s: TMI dude


Alex 01.22.10 at 12:13 pm

Yes – Andrew Sullivan. Strange to think there was an era before I learned to despise him. Would it be invidious to wonder what impact his testosterone supplements, or his subjective experience of them, had on his political engagement in that very crucial period of time?

Also, *another* blogger with, ah, issues around testicular health?


Glen Tomkins 01.22.10 at 2:33 pm

A century and a half of medical reform down the drain

One of the more distressing signs of the return of superstition and pet theories to medicine, which lately had been showing signs that it might actually have inoculated itself successfully with empiricism against this dangerous nonsense, is the return of testosterone “therapy” for aging males. No, we haven’t yet reached the point of treating every aged male who wants a little boost with a weekly shot of testosterone. But there is school of non-thought that practices offering supplementation to any aging male with any vague complaint who also has a serum testosterone level that measures anywhere below the lab parameter for normal. Since this limit is derived to define normal purely statistically, not based on serum testosterone levels associated with any disease, and since the population used to derive the statistics includes all ages, while there is a clear downward trend in testosterone levels with aging, large minorities of aging males, becoming majorities with really advanced age, qualify for this sort of “therapy”.

So far this seems to be mainly a regional disease, in that I haven’t seen this nonsense outside of South Carolina and east Georgia. But it has clear potential to spread more widely, because once on the stuff, its victims tend to imagine that it’s good for what ails them, and become enthusiastic proselytizers. You’ld think that there would be a shame factor involved that would blunt this mechanism of disease transmission, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. My own pet theory about the regionalism is that the example of Strom Thurmond is to blame. He made it respectable, in this population, to talk this up, despite the idea of the original supposed deficiency that you would have to have to qualify for this treatment. Strom was a Jurassic Park survival from the classic era of pet theories and garbage homeopathy, during which this misuse of testosterone enjoyed its day, and he seems to have brought the disease through the lean period as a sort of latent carrier.

At any rate, this is all by way of trying to inoculate this audience against the disease. If you are ever tempted to start getting your weekly or monthly shot of essence of manhood and youth, just think of it as an opportunity to become more like Strom Thurmond. You, too, can have a reptile brain! Well, you can have a placebo that gives you an excuse to act like you have a reptile brain. Strom probably came by it naturally, you’ld have to fake it.


Barry 01.22.10 at 3:06 pm

bad Jim: “my brother lets nothing between him and his 501’s: ”

belle le triste “TMI dude”

It might be necessary; maybe his testosterone annhilitates anything less tough than denim :)


tps12 01.22.10 at 3:08 pm

The most worthwhile observations of testosterone’s social implications come from teachers at all boy’s schools. The most ignorant and lame takes from Women’s Studies types.

Yes, nothing hones the scientific organ quite like immersion in the man-musk of nubile schoolboys.


JoB 01.22.10 at 3:22 pm

Still, one can overdose on it I guess.

Seriously, no testosterone is bad – too much testosterone is bad – so it is to be expected that at a certain level more testosterone will actually be good. The folk hypothesis is a folk hypothesis & as such not very scientifically stated. It is therefore rather possible that the study reveals that a. a certain level of testosterone is good in certain conditions & b. people tend to dislike alphamale type of social behaviour (and use ‘testosterone’ as shorthand for that behaviour).

Would this not have been obvious without a study? The interesting part of the study will be if it defines the two ‘certain’s’ above. But then we run the risk that some will see it as a cure for those that are introvert in nature. Or that the testosterone-quacks will outdo the plastic surgeons.


Barry 01.22.10 at 3:37 pm

“If you are ever tempted to start getting your weekly or monthly shot of essence of manhood and youth, just think of it as an opportunity to become more like Strom Thurmond. ”

I’ll just stick with good old-fashioned raw, um, ‘appropriate organs’ for dinner twice a week :)


Hortense 01.22.10 at 3:59 pm

This reminds me of a variant of the Milgram experiments, wherein teachers were told that certain of their students (who were actually randomly chosen) had exceptional potential, and at the end of the school year the students’ intelligence (as measured by IQ scores) had gone up. It wasn’t just that students performed as they were expected to perform, but that the way teachers treated them made them smarter.

Or was that later found to be irreproducible? Google is not my friend today.


Glen Tomkins 01.22.10 at 4:59 pm

“I’ll just stick with good old-fashioned raw, um, ‘appropriate organs’ for dinner twice a week :)”

The problem with that method — I mean, apart from the barking lunacy of the idea that testosterone from any source, mountain oysters a la carte or shots at the doctor’s office, will help anything except specific deficiency disorders — is that testosterone taken by mouth tends to be digested. That, and hepatotoxicity, is why we have to adminster it by injection, rather than the much more user-friendly pill route. Not that the appropriate organs in question really have very high levels of testosterone anyway, even before your digestive juices go to work.

If you’ve been relying on mountain oysters to give you any sort of boost, hate to harsh the boost, but any help you’ve gotten in that department has been pretty much placebo effect.

Now, if they taste good, that’s another matter, and bon appetit.


Glen Tomkins 01.22.10 at 5:26 pm

“Seriously, no testosterone is bad – too much testosterone is bad – so it is to be expected that at a certain level more testosterone will actually be good”

The limitation of that common sense to way of looking at this particular bioactive agent, testosterone, is that, for reasons not entirely clear, the male of the species has levels of this hormone that far exceed the maximum effect levels, certainly for behavioral effects, and, really, for just about everything the hormone does. Guys are simply switched “on”, all the time, completely, as far as testosterone goes. Even the lower levels you see in men as we age are still so high, so far above the max “dose”, that the idea that we need replacement therapy to restore us to serum levels characteristic of a 19 year-old, just doesn’t make sense.

You don’t see any dose-response behavior of the system (i.e., a little bit of it does a little of the effect, more of it does more of the effect) until you get down to the much lower (but not zero!) serum levels of testosterone typical of the female of the species. Just a slightly higher testosterone level, and a woman will start to grow hair where men do, and lose it where some men do, while men’s hair growth will respond to no testosterone manipulation except near-total elimination (not a cure for either male-pattern baldness, or the need to shave daily, that has mass-market appeal). It is thus entirely unsurprising that this study found effects only in women.


lemmy caution 01.22.10 at 7:18 pm


Ted 01.22.10 at 9:29 pm

More profound insights into gender folk wisdom than this study can be found every Friday and Saturday night at your local drag bar. Which is the main finding here. How good are women at drag after a testosterone hit, compared to without that hit. Pretty poor is the answer.


Glen Tomkins 01.22.10 at 9:52 pm


Well, as the LA Times article that your first link brings you to mentions, this question has been studied before, in a trial of similar design, and no effects from testosterone supplementation were found. No, this doesn’t guarantee that a new trial will also find no significant association, because the effects of even minor methodological differences can add up, and there is always the possibility of randomization error having gone the wrong way in the negative study. But a negative outcome in a previous RCT pretty much guarantees that any positive results will be small.

But the real problem with the study design of this “T Trial”, is that the clinical endpoints are subjective parameters that, even if testosterone were shown to improve, could be better and more safely improved via subjective means, as opposed to via some testosterone gel. No one could argue against the project of men over 65 feeling more vitality, but I think that in that project, what the patient can do for himself, what he needs to have learned to do for himself by age 65, so far exceeds the furthest prospect of what restoring the testosterone levels of a 19 year-old might do for him, that it really is never going to justify the risks of the testosterone “repletion”.

Yes, there is the bit about the blood count they threw in. They talk about it on the website as if increasing blood counts were one of the wonderful things that testosterone repletion might do. It is true that any significant testosterone dosage they manage to get into the bloodstream will tend to produce increased blood counts, but we know that already, we observe it often enough in the folks who get this “treatment” already. I had a patient who got a stroke from sludging when this “treatment” drove his counts up to dangerous levels. Mucking around with people’s blood counts is a bug, not a feature. If one or more of their counts are low pre-treatment, the answer is not to just give them testosterone and claim some clinical success when the counts go up, the answer is to figure out why the counts are low.

They actually are probably measuring blood counts mainly to monitor against the possibility of increasing them too excessively, which is certainly the responsible thing to do. I also assume that they refer people with counts that, based on quantitative range, and/or qualitative pattern, suggest some disease at work, rather than just the non-specific low counts of old age, for evaluation for such diseases; which is the responsible thing to do. But it is definitely not the responsible thing to do to advertise increases in blood count as a potential benefit of this “therapy”, certainly not on a website designed to recruit test subjects.


lemmy caution 01.23.10 at 1:03 am

It looks testosterone therapy has a big downside and a weak upside. I wouldn’t have expected that from that anecdotal reports like that Sullivan article.


bianca steele 01.23.10 at 1:11 am

I remember that Sullivan article well.


Matt McIrvin 01.23.10 at 3:45 am

How does this result relate to claims of hormonally-induced “roid rages” in people abusing anabolic steroids? Is that also placebo effect, or something socially induced in the sort of people who abuse steroids; or is the supposed phenomenon just an element of “Reefer Madness”-like antidrug propaganda? Have there been well-controlled studies of this?


Hungover Guy 01.24.10 at 12:20 am

As much as I can understand right now, I think you’re right!

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