An experimental study conducted on healthy young men found that applying 150 mg of testosterone gel to their upper arms eliminated their strategic prosocial behavior, which is the tendency to act more prosocially when observed by others. The paper was published in Neuropsychopharmacology.
Prosocial behavior refers to voluntary actions that are intended to benefit or help others, often without direct personal gain. It encompasses a wide range of activities, such as sharing, comforting, rescuing, and cooperating. It is motivated by empathy, moral principles, or a desire to comply with social norms. Prosocial behavior plays a crucial role in fostering positive social interactions, strengthening community bonds, and promoting social harmony. It is considered a fundamental aspect of human social life and is generally encouraged and rewarded in various cultural, educational, and organizational settings.
However, humans often exhibit more prosocial behavior when they are observed by others. This phenomenon, demonstrated across various social behaviors including blood donations and charitable contributions, is known as the audience effect. From an evolutionary perspective, making one’s generosity visible to others is beneficial as it signals that the person is a valuable group member with good qualities as a potential partner.
Study author Hana H. Kutlikova and her colleagues wanted to examine how testosterone affects strategic prosocial behavior. Previous studies indicated that testosterone affects status-seeking behaviors and that it modulates social behaviors through different neural and hormonal pathways. It is possible that testosterone affects strategic prosocial behaviors as well. Additionally, these researchers wanted to know whether testosterone interacts with specific gene variants and whether the behavioral effects of testosterone depend on the levels of cortisol.
Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone, crucial for the development of male reproductive tissues. It also plays a significant role in muscle and bone mass development, hair growth, and overall physical and sexual health in both men and women. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, often referred to as the “stress hormone.” It is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentrations.
The study involved 190 healthy adult men, aged 18 to 40, who were recruited via flyers and online advertisements. The researchers collected cell samples from participants’ cheeks to analyze specific gene variations (CAG and DAT1) and saliva samples to measure cortisol levels. Participants were then given a single dose of gel to apply to their upper arms and shoulders. This gel contained either testosterone (Androgel) or a placebo, depending on the study group to which participants were randomly assigned.
After applying the gel, there was a two-hour waiting period, during which participants completed personality and demographic surveys. One hour and fifty minutes post-application, another saliva sample was collected. The experimental task then followed, performed either privately or under observation.
The experimental task was a learning challenge, requiring participants to select symbols to maximize monetary rewards for themselves or an NGO. Researchers assessed the participants’ effectiveness in learning the task and maximizing rewards. Prosocial behavior was measured by their effectiveness in earning rewards for the NGO compared to themselves.
In the private condition, participants were assured of anonymity. In the observed condition, two female observers, presented as NGO representatives, watched the participants. Participants were randomly assigned to one of these conditions.
Participants in the placebo group showed more prosocial behaviors. However, this was because they made more correct choices when earning rewards for the NGO while they were being watched compared to the testosterone group.
This effect was absent in the testosterone group – the testosterone group participants made lower numbers of correct choices in the task when they did the task for the NGO compared to doing it for themselves both when they were being observed and when they were working in private. In other words, testosterone administration eliminated the audience effect. The number of correct choices in the task when earning rewards for themselves was not influenced by testosterone.
There were no interactions between cortisol levels and testosterone and the same was the case with analyzed genetic variations. The researchers did observe some interactions between testosterone effects and specific personal values.
“We conducted a multifaceted examination of the computational, endocrinological, and genetic mechanisms underlying audience effect and showed that testosterone reduced strategic prosocial learning through impairment of choice consistency. These findings provide evidence that in the Western student sample, testosterone abolishes audience effects, and therefore does not foster the seeking of social leadership by reputational politics,” the study authors concluded.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the effects of testosterone on human behavior. However, it should be noted that study participants were mostly or exclusively students and the prosocial behavior was examined in the scope of a task that was, more or less, fictional. Results might not be the same if behavior of people of different age or belonging to different demographics was examined in a more realistic situation.
The paper “Testosterone eliminates strategic prosocial behavior through impacting choice consistency in healthy males” was authored by Hana H. Kutlikova, Lei Zhang, Christoph Eisenegger, Jack van Honk, and Claus Lamm.