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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Testosterone, Aggression... Confusion

Breaking news from the BBC -
Testosterone link to aggression 'all in the mind'

Work in Nature magazine suggests the mind can win over hormones... Testosterone induces anti-social behaviour in humans, but only because of our own prejudices about its effect rather than its biological activity, suggest the authors.

The researchers, led by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, said the results suggested a case of "mind over matter" with the brain overriding body chemistry.

"Whereas other animals may be predominantly under the influence of biological factors such as hormones, biology seems to exert less control over human behaviour," they said.

Phew, that's a relief - for a minute back there I was worried we didn't have free will. But look a little closer at the study, and it turns out that all is not as it seems. The experiment (Eisenegger et al) involved giving healthy women 0.5 mg testosterone, or placebo, in a randomized double-blind manner, and then getting them to take part in the "Ultimatum Game".

This is a game for two players. One, the Proposer, is given some money, and then has to offer to give a certain proportion of it to the other player, the Receiver. If the Receiver accepts the offer, both players get the agreed-upon amount of money. If they reject it, however, no-one gets anything.

The Proposer is basically faced with the choice of making a "fair" offer, e.g. giving away 50%, or a greedy one, say offering 10% and keeping 90% for themselves. Receivers generally accept fair offers, but most people get annoyed or insulted by unfair ones, and reject them, even though this means they lose money (10% of the money is still more than 0%).

What happened? Testosterone affected behaviour. It had no effect on women playing the role of the Receivers, but the Proposers given testosterone made significantly fairer offers on average, compared to those given placebo. That's not mind over matter, that's matter over mind - give someone a hormone and their behaviour changes.

The direction of the effect is quite interesting - if testosterone increased aggression, as popular belief has it, you might expect it to decrease fair offers. Or, you might not. I suppose it depends on your understanding of "aggression". For their part, Eisenegger et al interpret this finding as suggesting that testosterone doesn't increase aggression per se, but rather increases our motivation to achieve "status", which leads to Proposers making fairer offers, so as to appear nicer. Hmm. Maybe.

But where did the BBC get the whole "all in the mind" thing from? Well, after the testing was over, the authors asked the women whether they thought they had taken testosterone or placebo. The results showed that the women couldn't actually tell which they'd had - they were no more accurate than if they were guessing - but women who believed they'd got testosterone made more unfair offers than women who believed they got placebo. The size of this effect was bigger than the effect of testosterone.

Is that "mind over matter"? Do beliefs about testosterone exert a more powerful effect on behaviour than testosterone itself? Maybe they do, but these data don't tell us anything about that. The women's beliefs weren't manipulated in any way in this trial, so as an experiment it couldn't investigate belief effects. In order to show that belief alters behaviour, you'd need to control beliefs. You could randomly assign some subjects to be told they were taking testosterone, and compare them to others told they were on placebo, say.

This study didn't do anything like that. Beliefs about testosterone were only correlated with behaviour, and unless someone's changed the rules recently, correlation isn't causation. It's like finding that people with brown skin are more likely to be Hindus than people with white skin, and concluding that belief in Brahma alters pigmentation. It could even be that the behaviour drove the belief, because subjects were quizzed about their testosterone status after the Ultimatum Game - maybe women who, for whatever reason, behaved selfishly, decided that this meant they had taken testosterone!

Overall, this study provides quite interesting data about hormonal effects on behaviour, but tells us nothing about the effects of beliefs about hormones. On that issue, the way the media have covered this experiment is rather more informative than the experiment itself.


ResearchBlogging.orgEisenegger, C., Naef, M., Snozzi, R., Heinrichs, M., & Fehr, E. (2009). Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08711

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