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Does Testosterone Fuel Aggression or Drive Generosity? Both, Study Says

Increased levels of testosterone in men promote both social and antisocial behaviors, but only when they are appropriate for increasing status among peers, new research shows.

Popular science has largely equated high levels of testosterone in men with hyper-aggression, brutishness, and downright bad behavior.

But the steroid hormone may have a more complex impact on men than previously believed, according to a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study, 40 male volunteers—half of whom were given a testosterone injection, half of whom were given a placebo—were asked to play a modified “Ultimatum Game.” One group of volunteers responded to predetermined proposals as part of the game, while the other half played the game in pairs with one another. 

In both modifications of the game, subjects were presented with several opportunities to either accept or reject money from a pot of cash that would be split (though not necessarily evenly) between the subject and a “proposer.” If the subject accepted a proposal, he got to keep his share of the money; if he rejected the offer, neither he nor the "proposer" would receive a portion. Having accepted or rejected a series of proposals, the participant could then  use his own earnings (if any) to either punish or reward the “proposer” based on a personal assessment of how fairly (or unfairly) he felt he'd been treated. 

Researchers reviewed the behavior of volunteers injected with testosterone in the game and, as expected, found that they were more likely to reject and punish the “proposers” they viewed as unfair. Surprisingly, they also found that, compared to those who received a placebo, the testosterone-enhanced men were also exceptionally generous toward opponents they considered to be fair.

The upshot: These findings suggest that testosterone can actually cause both prosocial and antisocial behavior to produce a “status display” that would make the player seem more impressive (by way of either aggression or generosity) to their peers. In other words, it's a status thing—and it suggests that your asshole neighbor who can't resist flaunting his new Beamer might also donate to the local private school for the same underlying reasons.

With the knowledge that testosterone can make you more generous towards your peers (which women love, by the way), you’re going to want to check out these natural supplements to boost testosterone. If you’d rather hit the gym to bump up your “T” levels, we’ve also got the best workouts to help you do it.

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