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On the English Language and Usage stack exchange, two people asked what was meant by "testosterone-charged", as in the following quote, from the story "2 States: The Story of My Marriage" by Chetan Bhagat:

"I’d have much preferred her place, as I didn’t want her to be the only woman in the dorm with twenty testosterone-charged men"

A number of English language dictionaries describe testosterone as a figurative way to refer to manly behaviour. For example, the English edition of Wiktionary has

2 (figuratively) Manly behavior, often of an aggressive or foolishly reckless nature. Mother encouraged James to rely more on intelligence and less on testosterone to deal with the neighbor's son.

While vocabulary.com has in the second paragraph

The word testosterone was coined in the 1930s. It is based on the Latin word testis, which means testicle, and the word sterol, meaning steroid. Because it is the hormone that develops male characteristics, the word testosterone sometimes refers to the quality of being male. A room crowded with men watching football is commonly described as being "full of testosterone."

and Merriam Webster has

2: qualities (as brawn and aggressiveness) usually associated with males : manliness

These sources may or may not be notable in themselves, but they do attest to a widespread perception by the general public about what testosterone is and what it does.

Question is, is this perception valid? I'd like to know, so that if I had to describe the metaphorical sense of "testosterone", I'd be able to tell them right off the bat whether it was true or not, rather than polluting the world with more misinformation.

I'm wondering because many ideas that become popular in the general public are either incorrect, or have been over-simplified somewhat, whereas ideas that are complicated and nuanced aren't as popular in the general public.

Wikipedia's article on testosterone is very long, but most of it is about mundane details such as its effects on anatomy (in both a euphemistic and non-euphemistic sense). The section Romantic relationships and fatherhood onwards until the end of Aggression and criminality addresses the effects of testosterone on behaviour, but some of it is less than convincing. Sometimes it talks about correlation, and Wikipedia doesn't seem to mention a mechanism by which testosterone causes "male" behaviour.

Does testosterone play a role in stereotypical "male" behaviour, such as a high desire for sex, and a propensity for competitive, aggressive or high risk behaviour?

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    As long as we shift away from what constitutes "stereotypical male" behaviour, then this question is good and interesting. If the community digresses in a discussion of what constitutes that behaviour then we may need to close and fix. In my opinion, there needs not be a strict definition of "stereotypical male" to be able to answer meaningfully. – Sklivvz Jan 2 '13 at 13:21
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    Don't remember any cites, but IIRC "high desire for sex" is not really considered a "male" behavior when you look at the data (as opposed to culture-pressure-susceptible-stereotypes). – user5341 Jan 2 '13 at 14:41
  • @DVK But it is often stated to be related to testosterone in colloquial conversation. I usually hear it suggested that Testosterone causes physical aggression, competitiveness, bullying/dominance behavior, and sexual aggression/assertiveness (hitting on women without seeming dismayed by negative reactions). – Yamikuronue Jan 2 '13 at 18:21
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    @Yamikuronue - " bullying/dominance behavior"? Last I checked, 50% of domestic violence is initiated by women. And this is not counting undeerreporting-by-men-out-of-fear-of-appearing-a-wuss factor. Just because modern colloquial conversation is permissive towards being sexist towards men, doesn't make the stereotypes any more valid. – user5341 Jan 2 '13 at 18:29
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    @nico - rodents!=primates :) On a related note, I'd reluctantly agree to volunteer to a study where women would hit on me to test my reactions. FOR SCIENCE. – user5341 Jan 2 '13 at 21:07
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Human behavior is complicated. Here's for example a study titled "Male Testosterone Linked to High Social Dominance but Low Physical Aggression in Early Adolescence" that investigates boys aged 6-12:

Boys perceived as socially dominant by unfamiliar peers were found to have concurrently higher levels of testosterone than boys perceived as less socially dominant. In contrast, boys who had a history of high physical aggression, from age 6 to 12, were found to have lower testosterone levels at age 13 compared with boys with no history of high physical aggression. The former were also failing in school and were unpopular with their peers.

The claim that testosterone always produces aggression is therefore false. On the other hand, you could label socially dominant behavior as "manly". The kid who's socially dominant and is popular with his peers doesn't need to engage in aggression.

Mazur, Allan, and Alan Booth. "Testosterone and dominance in men." Behavioral and Brain Science (1998) says:

In men, high levels of endogenous testosterone (T) seem to encourage behavior intended to dominate – to enhance one’s status over – other people. Sometimes dominant behavior is aggressive, its apparent intent being to inflict harm on another person, but often dominance is expressed nonaggressively. Sometimes dominant behavior takes the form of antisocial behavior, including rebellion against authority and law breaking. Measurement of T at a single point in time, presumably indicative of a man’s basal T level, predicts many of these dominant or antisocial behaviors.

It's also worth noting that testosterone not only causes dominace but also the other way around (from the same study):

The act of competing for dominant status affects male T levels in two ways. First, T rises in the face of a challenge, as if it were an anticipatory response to impending competition. Second, after the competition, T rises in winners and declines in losers.

The person who wins the challenge for social dominance is more likely to engage in more challenges for social domiance through his raised testosterone. The loser of the conflict reduces his testosterone and therefore is less likely to try to be socially dominant again and fail again.

I'd like to know, so that if I had to describe the metaphorical sense of "testosterone", I'd be able to tell them right off the bat whether it was true or not

Asking whether a psychological model like this is true or false is a bad question. If you want to evaluate such a model you have to ask yourself whether the model is able to make useful predictions.

An example of a very bad psychology model would be the model that astrology proposes. You have 12 different personality traits that all depend on when the person got born. If you use that model and observe people's behavior you can't predict at all when they got born.

In physics Newton created a quite useful model for the way gravity works. Newton's model makes useful predictions. You can use it to effective calculate the aerodynamics of airplane travel.

Words like dominance and aggression are theoretical constructs that humans invented to describe reality. If you ask two different observers whether a behavior is dominant, they are more likely than chance to agree. There are however also cases where the two observers will disagree. You can't measure the quantity of dominance as finely as you can measure the speed of an object. As a result a concept that uses terms like domiance is unable to make predictions with 99.9% certainty.

If you have two people and judge their dominance you can't predict their testosterone levels with 99.9% certainty.

But let's get back to the definition of male behavior:

Most males have a higher testosterone level than females. Testosterone does have an effect on behavior. If one wants to avoid vague human created terms like 'domiance' and 'aggression', it's tempting to define male behavior as that behavior that's created by a higher testosterone level.

Since testosterone levels are in principle less fuzzy than old psychological terms like 'dominance' there some idealistic hope that it's a better definition. Giving the complexity of human behavior it's however hard to invent good categories and some people might find it more useful to use words like 'dominance' and 'aggression' because they can better imagine what those words mean.

  • There's a wrinkle in the model: there are plenty of women who exhibit the same behavioral traits of 'dominance' and 'aggression' as usually attributable to males, on the levels exceeding average male. Unless they have T levels exceeding average male base level, the model seems majorly deficient. – user5341 Jan 3 '13 at 1:51
  • @DVK : If you say that a 5-year old kid is tall you aren't saying that he's taller then the average human. You are saying that he's taller than the average 5-year old. The same goes for saying a woman has high testosterone. – Christian Jan 3 '13 at 13:23
  • my point is that there exist women who are more aggressive/dominant than men (in your example, a 5 year old who's taller than 5'7", or whatever modern average adult height is). For your model to work, those women would have to either have higher T than average male, OR the model needs to be expanded to explain aggression in women independent of merely T level – user5341 Jan 3 '13 at 14:13
  • @DVK There no claim in what I wrote that a woman who's high in testosterone has the same testosterone level as a man who's high in testosterone. – Christian Jan 3 '13 at 15:07
  • Agreed. I meant that your model seems to imply that T levels drive aggression. If that's the case, absent other factors (e.g., estrogen levels driving aggression as well), ALL woman should by default be less aggressive than ALL men, because presumably nearly all women have less T than almost every male. – user5341 Jan 3 '13 at 15:35

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