Developmental Biology - Testosterone|
Testosterone Complicates Relationships
Testosterone has a complicated relationship with moral reasoning...
Although some studies have linked high levels of testosterone to immoral behavior, a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour finds testosterone supplements make people more sensitive to moral norms, suggesting testosterone's influence on behavior is complicated.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin took a deep look into the hormonal underpinnings of moral reasoning. Previous research investigated moral judgment on the basis of behavior response and brain activity, but the current study goes beyond this, analyzing the role of deep-seated biological factors, in particular - testosterone.
"There's been an increasing interest in how hormones influence moral judgment by regulating brain activity. To the extent that moral reasoning is at least partly rooted in deep-seated biology, some moral conflicts might be difficult to resolve with arguments."
Bertram Gawronski PhD, Psychology Professor, University of Texas Austin, USA.
Researchers borrowed a paradigm from philosophy to test the influence of testosterone on moral judgment. In the "philosopher's trolley" problem, a runaway trolley will kill five people unless someone chooses to pull a lever, redirecting that trolley to another track where it will kill one person instead.
Instead of using the trolley problem, researchers used 24 dilemmas associated with real-life events to simulate pitting utilitarian decisions focusing on the greater good — such as saving a large group of people against deontological (obligation or duty) decisions that focus on avoiding action that harms anyone — which is the moral norm.
Prior studies on how hormones influence moral judgment suggest that higher levels of testosterone are associated with stronger utilitarian preferences. So, the researchers put the hypothesis to the test in a double-blind study that administered testosterone to a group of 100 participants and a placebo to another 100 participants.
"The study was designed to test whether testosterone directly influences moral judgments and how," said Skylar Brannon, a psychology graduate student at UT Austin. "Our design also allowed us to examine three independent aspects of moral judgment, including sensitivity to consequences, sensitivity to moral norms and general preference for action or inaction."
Unlike previous studies where heightened testosterone was linked to utilitarian judgment, researchers were surprised to find those who received testosterone supplements were less likely to act for the greater good, instead becomming more sensitive to moral norms.
However, participants with high levels of naturally occurring testosterone showed the opposite, making judgments that were less sensitive to moral norms.
Study's authors believe naturally occurring testosterone may be associated with certain moral judgments because people with particular personality traits tend to have different levels of testosterone.
For example, people with high levels of psychopathy tend to have high levels of naturally occurring testosterone and exhibit lower sensitivity to moral norms.
But this does not mean testosterone is the cause of psychopaths' insensitivity to moral norms. If anything, testosterone seems to have the opposite effect, increasing people's sensitivity to moral norms, as found in the current study.
"The current work challenges some dominant hypotheses about the effects of testosterone on moral judgment. Our findings echo the importance of distinguishing between cause and correlation in research of neuroendocrines on human behavior - showing the effects of testosterone supplements on moral judgment can be opposite to naturally occurring testosterone and moral judgment."
Bertram Gawronski PhD
Moral dilemma judgements frequently involve decisions where moral norms and the greater good are in conflict. The current preregistered study tested the effect of the steroid hormone testosterone on moral dilemma judgements using a double-blind administration of testosterone or placebo. Counter to predictions, testosterone administration led to increased inaction in moral dilemmas where harmful actions prohibited by moral norms increase overall well-being. Using a mathematical model to disentangle sensitivity to consequences, sensitivity to moral norms and general preference for inaction versus action, analyses further revealed that testosterone administration influenced judgements by increasing sensitivity to moral norms. Exploratory analyses suggested the opposite pattern for endogenous testosterone measured at baseline, in that higher levels of endogenous testosterone were associated with lower sensitivity to moral norms. The results indicate that the role of testosterone in moral judgements is more complex than suggested by previous findings.
Skylar M. Brannon, Sarah Carr, Ellie Shuo Jin, Robert A. Josephs and Bertram Gawronski.
At the time of writing, Dr. Kalin had received honoraria from CME Outfitters, Elsevier, and the Pritzker Consortium; served on scientific advisory boards for Actify Neurotherapies, Neuronetics, and currently serves as an advisor to the Pritzker Neuroscience Consortium and consults to Corcept Therapeutics; served as co-editor of Psychoneuroendocrinology, and currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Psychiatry; and has patents on promoter sequences for corticotropin-releasing factor CRF2alpha and a method of identifying agents that alter the activity of the promoter sequences (7,071,323; 7,531,356), promoter sequences for urocortin II and the use thereof (7,087,385), and promoter sequences for corticotropin-releasing factor binding protein and the use thereof (7,122,650). All other authors report no biomedical financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.
This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant no. 1449620, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant No. 10.13039/100000071 R01HD084772 and a Preregistered Research Grant from the European Association of Social Psychology. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Preparation of the manuscript was supported in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (grant no. 10.13039/100000071 R01HD084772) to R.A.J. We thank M. Hütter for her help with the simulation to estimate the statistical power for the CNI model analyses.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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IMAGE CREDIT University of Texas at Austin