How does testosterone influence aggression?

Travis DixonBiological Psychology, Criminology, Revision and Exam Preparation

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Understanding how testosterone can influence aggression can be a little tricky, so this post is designed to provide extra help. This post is designed to support the materials in Topic 2.4 of our textbook, IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide.

Common Errors

Here is what an over-simplified (and incorrect) explanation for testosterone and aggression might look like:

Incorrect mind map testosterone

There are too many details missing from this explanation of how testosterone influences aggression, so it won’t make sense.

So in writing, this explanation would probably go along these lines:

If we have high testosterone our amygdala will be more activated, which is going to increase the activation of our stress response. This can cause aggression.

The problem with this explanation is that there are too many details missing. For example, two key things that are missing from this explanation are:

  • When does testosterone increase amygdala activity?
  • Why does increased stress response lead to aggression?

The Complete Picture

The mind map below includes some really important pieces of information that are needed to fully explain how testosterone could influence aggression:

Detailed mind map testosterone

The motivation + the arousal are perhaps the most important pieces of this puzzle!

Now if we put the above mind map into a written response, it might look something like this:

If we have high testosterone levels when we’re threatened by someone and we’re motivated to deal with that social threat, our amygdala is more activated. This will result in an increase in emotional and physiological arousal (e.g. increase in adrenaline and heart rate). So if we’re approaching a threat, we want to deal with it and we have high levels of emotional and physiological arousal, we may be more likely to react aggressively because showing aggression would be a good way to deal with the threat.

Now we have a far more plausible explanation for the connections between testosterone and aggression. The missing pieces are related to the thought-processes of the person who is acting aggressively. The threat and the motivation to deal with the threat are key because aggression is one way that someone might response to a threat. This is because aggression helps us to assert our social dominance and if someone is feeling threatened and they want to keep their status (i.e. they’re motivated) they could be more likely to display aggression and the pumping adrenaline and physical readiness from the activated amygdala will help them with this.

Our textbook also covers how cortisol can influence memory, which is easier to explain. This means there are other options if you this is too tricky.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • What might influence the motivation to deal with the threat? (Hint: cultural values)
  • What might put a break on our aggressive reactions?
  • The explanation above is based on Radke et al.’s experiment. Are these results reliable?
  • Can this explanation be applied to all forms of aggression?