Testosterone Impacts Behavior Based on Social Context—An Animal Study

Posted by Dr. Michael White, Updated on October 7th, 2022
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While Testosterone can strongly influence human and animal behavior, this influence is complex and cannot always be easily predicted. Environment and context play a huge role in how Testosterone manifests itself in an individual's thought and action.

While Testosterone is strongly associated with aggression, this is not always the case based on social context. In some cases, Testosterone promotes antisocial demeanor, but in other circumstances it can lead to social bonding. A study involving gerbils was conducted to explore this dichotomy and was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Married Couple Studies Bonded Gerbils

This study was conducted by Drs. Aubrey Kelly and Richmond Thompson from Emory University in Atlanta. Kelly and Thompson are not only working partners but also married!

For this experiment, Mongolian gerbils were dosed with Testosterone in different social circumstances to see how the males would react. First, male gerbils were administered Testosterone in the presence of a bonded partner. Then, those same gerbils were shot up with Testosterone while an intruder was present in their environment. Mongolian gerbils were specifically selected for their strong pair bonds and their territorial nature during mating.

Testosterone Aggression, and Affection

Usually, studies on Testosterone and Behavior explore aggression, confidence, and proclivity toward the antisocial. There are also some studies that show how Testosterone drives competition and desire for status. Dr. Kelly and her partner wanted to create an experiment that could show how an individual may respond to Testosterone differently in different social atmospheres, believing that it could lead to dramatically different reactions.

When given Testosterone with their mate, Testosterone led to increased affection and caused the rodents to be less hostile to intruders. If injected with Testosterone in the presence of an unknown gerbil, the rodent turned aggressive on the invader. This difference in reaction showcases how Testosterone is dependent on the social circumstances of its presence in the blood stream.

In one case, Testosterone made the gerbil less hostile, while in another, it heightened aggression. One could speculate that the gerbil associated the rush of Testosterone with affection for its mate in the first case, while in the other case, the Testosterone initiated a fighting response. The male was high off the presence of its mate and was less inclined to see a threat. A surge of Testosterone in the presence of that intruder, however, led to a confrontation. While every species is influenced by Testosterone in a unique way, we can glean insights into how our thoughts and actions are modified by Testosterone based off of our shared evolution as mammals.

First Study to Showcase Context-Sensitive Testosterone

What's exciting about this Emory Testosterone Study is that the researchers believe it is the first study to demonstrate this modular aspect of Testosterone in a single individual. If Testosterone only led to antisocial behavior, it would suppress instinct of affection. The results of this study show that Testosterone's influence is dependent on context.

It makes logical sense that the parts of our brain associated with cognition and action are context-sensitive with regard to Testosterone. Bonding with a lover can make us more relaxed in the presence of others, but can also make us more prone to defense and aggression when someone poses a perceived threat. Surging Testosterone can prompt stronger bonding, or can be the impetus for a battle for status.

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