Study suggests sexual competition among men influences steroid use

The desire to outdo others in the dating arena could motivate men to start using muscle-building steroids, according to new research in the Journal of Health Psychology.

In the study, researchers surveyed 122 young men who exercised at bodybuilding-dedicated gyms in South Wales. They found those who admitted to using anabolic-androgenic steroids also tended to report experiencing higher levels of intrasexual competition, meaning competition between members of the same-sex over potential mates.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Marc Harris of Cardiff Metropolitan University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Harris: My interest in this topic area is mainly the product of my upbringing combined with my passion for weight resistance exercise. Growing up in Wales and frequently undertaking weight resistance exercise since my adolescent years I became increasingly aware of the alarmingly high prevalence of Anabolic Androgenic steroid (AAS) use and more importantly the relaxed culture surrounding usage. As a psychology undergraduate, I had the opportunity to study the possible underpinnings of AAS use in a structured, scientific manner. This was an opportunity that I could not pass up as it allowed me to combine my personal experience communicating with users and non-users alike for several years with my growing knowledge of psychological theory and methodology.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The specific findings of this study stemmed from an earlier, in-depth qualitative investigation conducted by myself and the co-authors of this manuscript (Harris, Dunn & Alwyn, 2016). In very brief terms, one of the key findings of this rich investigation was the emphasis that male AAS users placed upon competing with other men, whether this be close peers or complete strangers in the same gym environment. This finding took my colleagues and I by surprise as previous circulating literature had focussed primarily on the internal factors which may influence usage, such as body image preconceptions or a broader range of problem behaviours.

With this investigation, we aimed to test this qualitative finding, that an intense desire to compete with other men may be an important contributory factor to AAS use, through quantitative methodologies. We felt that terminology from evolutionary psychology best suited the phenomena that we were attempting to study, specifically ‘Intrasexual Competition’ defined as competition with same sex individuals for access to individuals of the opposite sex (Rosvall, 2011). We found that users and non-users of AAS differed significantly in levels of Intrasexual Competition, but only those with 0-2 years’ weight-resistance exercise (bodybuilding) experience. This research provides evidence for the importance of an external variable which may motivate individuals within this environment to the use of these potentially highly harmful substances.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This study focussed solely on male AAS users and therefore the findings may only be applicable to men. It would be intriguing to conduct a similar study with female users, utilising the female version of the Intrasexual Competition Scale used in this research (Buunk & Fisher, 2009). Furthermore, this study utilised self-reported measures of AAS use and Intrasexual competition only, therefore the unavoidable limitation arises for how truthful individuals are when reporting both substance use and emotionally demanding questions.

The findings presented in this paper highlight an over-emphasis on internal factors, such as body image pathology or individual conduct problems, by previous research. There is a need for in-depth research which focuses on the culture within bodybuilding gyms. Such research will enable us to better understand the social mechanisms which operate within these highly-pressured environments which will help better inform how potential interventions aimed at reducing usage could be developed and implemented.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There is an overwhelming need for further research in this area. We’re living through a time where social media places people under immense pressure to conform to unrealistic standards and achieve unreachable goals. Only by understanding what causes people to switch from the health-enhancing behaviour of sport and exercise to the potentially highly harmful practice of performance and image enhancing drug use can suitable preventative interventions be developed and introduced.

The study, “Intrasexual competition as a potential influence on anabolic-androgenic steroid use initiation“, was also co-authored by Michael Dunn and Tina Alwyn.