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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 22, 2010

Maybe You Need Some More Testosterone Over There

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Posted by Derek

This one's also from the Department of Placebo Effects - read on. An interesting paper out in Nature details a study where volunteers took small doses of testosterone or placebo, and then participated in a standard behavioral test, the "Ultimatum Game". That's the one where two people participate, with one of them given a sum of money (say, $10), that's to be divided between the two of them. The player with the money makes an offer to divide the pot, which the other player can only take or leave (no counteroffers). A number of interesting questions about altruism and competition have been examined through this game and its variants - basically, the first thing to ask is how much the "dictator" player will feel like offering at all. (If you like, here's the Freakonomics guys talking about the game, which features in a chapter of their latest, SuperFreakonomics).

What's been found in many studies is that the second players often reject offers that they feel are insultingly low, giving up a sure gain for the sake of pride and sending a message to the first player. I think of this as the "Let me tell you what you can do with your buck-fifty" option. So what does exposure to testosterone do for this behavior? As the authors of the new paper talk about, there are two (not necessarily exclusive) theories about some of the hormone's effects. Increases in aggression and competitiveness are widely thought to be one of these, but there's also a good amount of literature to suggest that status-seeking behavior is perhaps more important. But if someone is going to be aggressive about the ultimatum game, they're going to make a lowball offer and damn the consequences, whereas if they're looking for status, they may well choose a course that avoids having their offer thrown back in their face.

Using known double-blind conditions for testosterone dosing in female subjects (sublingual dosing four hours before the test), the second behavior was observed. Update: keep in mind, women have endogenous testosterone, too. The subjects who got testosterone made more generous offers (from about $3.50 to closer to $4.00). The error bars on that measurement just miss overlapping, p = 0.031. But here's the part I found even more interesting: the subjects who believed that they got testosterone made significantly less fair/generous offers than the ones who believed that they got the placebo (P = 0.006). Because, after all, testosterone makes you all tough and nasty, as everyone knows. As the authors sum it up:

"The profound impact of testosterone on bargaining behaviour supports the view that biological factors have an important role in human social interaction. This does, of course, not mean that psychological factors are not important. In fact, our finding that subjects’ beliefs about testosterone are negatively associated with the fairness of bargaining offers points towards the importance of psychological and social factors. Whereas other animals may be predominantly under the influence of biological factors such as hormones, biology seems to exert less control over human behaviour. Our findings also teach an important methodological lesson for future studies: it is crucial to control for subjects’ beliefs because the pure substance effect may be otherwise under- or overestimated. . ."

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | General Scientific News | The Central Nervous System


1. gyges on January 22, 2010 10:34 AM writes...

I find this story, Hard as Nails about the reality of imagined pain, to be fascinating.

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2. Cartesian on January 22, 2010 10:41 AM writes...

But if in order to have the status aggressivity is needed, then it could come from testosterone, nonetheless as a consequence and not as a first reaction.

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3. PharmaHeretic on January 22, 2010 11:09 AM writes...

Think about it, who is more mean and vindictive (men or women).

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4. Lu on January 22, 2010 11:20 AM writes...

It takes a brave woman to voluntarily ingest a male hormone...

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5. PharmaHeretic on January 22, 2010 1:19 PM writes...

Hmm.. I have a idea.

Sub-lingual testosterone for reducing catty behavior. Now you can go to parties, family gatherings, reunions and baby showers without suffering excessive jealousy.

Use a single dose 2 hours before the event.

Side effects may include oily skin, acne, excessive facial hair and horniness. Chronic use may increase muscle mass.. etc..

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6. Hap on January 22, 2010 3:53 PM writes...

I don't worry about catty so much as stupid, and testosterone doesn't cure stupid.

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7. madkathy on January 22, 2010 6:34 PM writes...

How about a cure for misogyny, Hap? PharmaHeretic?

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8. Chacao on January 22, 2010 7:12 PM writes...

"..there's also a good amount of literature to suggest that status-seeking behavior is perhaps more important.."
Are you more likely to gain status by offering a "fair share" than by offering a deal that only benefits you?

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9. Hap on January 22, 2010 8:00 PM writes...

I was trying to say that I was less worried about catty behavior (from women) than stupid behavior from everyone (not women in particular). Sorry.

Apparently roids don't help with misogyny, though.

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10. madkathy on January 23, 2010 12:28 AM writes...

Ah. I suppose suspicion of gender-equal stupidity is ok. (And probably justified.)

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11. cherry on January 24, 2010 8:40 AM writes...

I wonder if every thought process is a chemcial reaction/interaction or every thought produces a chemical?!

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12. Bored on January 24, 2010 5:40 PM writes...

Essence of gender: Women are manipulative, Men are stupid.

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13. Anonymous on January 25, 2010 3:49 AM writes...

Every though does produce plenty of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, via the action of enzymatic chemical reaction, and corresponding interactions. But that doesn't make thoughts themselves chemical reactions. The difference is that between an electric motor and a computer. A computer does contain electric motors (harddrives, fans etc.) but data processing isn't only running electric motors.

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