According to acclaimed professor of neurology Dr. Robert Sapolsky, we’ve gotten it all wrong when it comes to the idea of testosterone simply ‘causing’ aggression.
In an episode of the Huberman Podcast (embedded at this end of this article), Sapolsky said the following:
“Almost everybody out there has the completely wrong idea as to what testosterone does, which is: testosterone makes you aggressive–because males of virtually every species out there have more testosterone and are more aggressive–and seasonal maters have testosterone surging at the time of year they’re punching it out over territory, and if you take testosterone out of the picture and castrate any mammal out there, including us, levels of aggression will go down…and the easy thing to conclude is that testosterone causes aggression…”
He then goes on to say that it’s not quite that simple, however:
“…and the reality is that testosterone does no such thing. It doesn’t cause aggression…what does testosterone do? It lowers the threshold for the sorts of things that would normally provoke you into being aggressive, so that it happens more easily. It makes systems that are already turned on turn on louder…what does that look like behaviorally?”
He then describes an experiment in which a male monkey within a dominance hierarchy of several other males, if given testosterone, will only act more aggressively toward the monkeys below him when challenged, but will remain just as docile when face-to-face with the monkeys above him in the pecking order.
Dr. Sapolsky has been doing research on how testosterone and other hormones like cortisol relate to primate behaviors for multiple decades, and his observations are fascinating.
He’s fond of pointing out how testosterone can be both antisocial and prosocial, depending on the context (check out my article ‘the many faces of testosterone’ for a deep dive on this).
So no, boosting testosterone does not simply make you into an irresponsible man-beast. Instead, it enhances your ability to be generous when generosity is due, and to defend yourself and your loved ones when appropriate.
Watch Sapolsky describe how testosterone actually influences behavior, based on the science: