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Testosterone, Physical Aggression and Social Dominance in Adolesence

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Testosterone and social dominance are linked, that is, when one is socially dominant then they will have higher levels of testosterone. But does this necessarily translate into violent behavior? No it does not. One longitudinal study looked at the effect of testosterone in children from kindergarten to the end of primary school (ages 6 to 13). Were high levels of testosterone associated with physical aggression and/or social dominance?

Schaal et al (1996) followed 178 boys from kindergarten to the end of primary school. To attempt to control for certain variables, they “were recruited according to the following criteria: (1) attending school in low socioeconomic areas of Montreal; (2) born from Caucasian, French-speaking parents themselves born in Canada; and (3) living with parents having medium to low educational status” (Schaal et al 1996).

They collected behavioral assessments at age 6, 10 and 13 through teacher and peer ratings. They asked questions such as “Who would you choose as a leader?” and “Who is the toughest?” To assess this, the authors made a game where they had to toss sandbags at targets to win money, with the only rules being they had to be a certain distance away from the targets. At the end of the game, the winner received 2 dollars while the others received 1 dollar. Each individual received a ‘toughness’ and ‘dominance’ score. Schaal et al (1996) write:

The crossing of both toughness and leadership scores, using the median, yielded four groups defined as follows: (1) tough-leader (n = 52); (2) toughnot leader (n = 27); (3) not tough-leader (n = 44); and (4) not tough -not leader (n = 48).

peer evals

The groups did not differ on demographic or socioeconomic status, however, they showed differing ratings than they did at school in the previous year. Those rated tough by peers unfamiliar to them had also been rated more aggressive by peers who knew them than those who were rated ‘not tough’.

They assessed behavior and anxiety levels using a social behavior questionnaire. They write:

Boys were entered into the following categories according to their behavior rating scores on at least three of four assessments: (1) stable high fighter/stable high anxious (SH F-SHA; n = 20): fighting and anxiety scores at the 70th percentile or greater; (2) stable high fighter/ stable low anxious (SHF-SLA; n = 11): fighting score equaled or exceeded the 70th percentile and anxiety score was equal to or below the 50th percentile; (3) stable low fighter/stable high anxious (SLF-SHA; n = 10): equal to or less than the 50th percentile on the fighting scale and greater than the 70th percentile on the anxiety scale; and (4) stable low fighter/stable low anxious (SLFSLA; n = 25): equal to or lower than the 50th percentile on both fighting and anxiety scores.

peer evals aggression

Children who were noted by teachers to be more physically aggressive compared with children noted not to be physically aggressive were rated higher on “proactive aggression.” These children were also rated less popular.

They collected saliva to assay for testosterone at 8:30 am (yay), 10 am, 11 am, and 3:30 pm. There is a direct correlation between salivary testosterone levels and free testosterone levels in the body (Wang et al, 1981; Johnson, Joplin, and Burrin, 1987), and since it’s easier and way less of a biohazard to assay saliva for testosterone levels than to assay blood, it’s only logical to assay saliva since it’s easier and less of a chance for contaminated samples.

Now comes the fun part: did the socially dominant, tough leaders who were to have higher levels of testosterone more physically aggressive? To make it short: NO. The children who had LOWER testosterone were seen to be more physically aggressive. The ‘tough-not’ leaders were seen to be more aggressive; they had lower testosterone than both tough-not groups and lower than the tough leaders. Is this not ironic? This completely flys in the face of numerous theories on how and why grade-school children fight: it’s not high testosterone that causes this phenomenon, clearly.

It’s also interesting to note that those boys who were “stable high fighters” had lower testosterone levels compared to boys that were “stable low fighters” at age 13. Forty-one percent of the “stable high fighters “were in a regular classroom at the level appropriate for their age (age 13) compared with 91% of the stable low fighters” (Schaal et al 1996: 1327). The first analysis they conducted showed that, after only having met for three hours, the boys with high salivary testosterone were rated as “tough” and a “leader”. However—and this is where things get good—boys who were consistently rated as having higher levels of aggression between the ages of 6 and 12 had lower levels of testosterone at age 13. 

Though, boys with high testosterone at age 13 “appear to be individuals who quickly succeed in imposing their will on peers, sometimes by aggressive behavior, but remain socially attractive over time” (Schaal et al, 1996: 1328). And, of course, boys who were rated as physically aggressive from kindergarten to age 12 (who had lower testosterone levels) were not seen as socially dominant. These children were seen as less popular and also were failing in school.

Elevated testosterone levels at age 13 were seen to be associated with social dominance when assessed after the game and three hour meet discussed above. Further, lower levels of testosterone between the ages of 6 to 12 (and assayed at 13) were associated with higher levels of aggression and more fighting. They state that higher levels of testosterone are only associated with aggression “only if the latter confers a dominant status” (Schaal et al, 1996: 1329). Higher testosterone is, of course, associated with better social well-being whereas lower levels of testosterone was associated with more violence which may be due to social isolation, stable anxiety throughout childhood or both influences influencing the aggressive behavior along with the low testosterone. High testosterone levels in adolescence is not related to antisocial disorder, but it is related to social dominance—as I have stated countless times.

Now for some comments.

I like this study. How they used behavioral questionnaires to assess children’s behavior, as well as using teacher and peer ratings to assess behavior is a great method. It’s even better that they followed them throughout their adolescent life to see any patterns that arose. I hope that there is more data on these children (I will look for any other data on this one point) because this could elucidate so many testosterone relationships with behavior. This study shows that higher testosterone levels were not associated with antisocial behavior but it was, however, associated with greater social well-being.

Clearly, we need higher-ish levels of testosterone—especially since lower levels are correlated with numerous maladies. So, it seems, that the testosterone=crime aggression myth (and in my opinion, crime) is busted. Testosterone is an extremely important hormone for proper endocrine functioning and having levels that are too low. They also state at the end of the paper that “From the perspective of the present study, it can be hypothesized that in a sample of normal adolescent males, those who dominate will tend to react to provocation and to show relatively low frustration tolerance. The results from the Olweus and colleagues’ study might then be interpreted as showing the relationship between dominance and T, rather than between antisocial behavior and T.

So, again, testosterone is related to dominance; if you have lower testosterone you will be less socially dominant while if you have more you will be more socially dominant (this holds for adults as well). It’s interesting to note that boys perceived as dominant when around people they did not know had higher levels of testosterone than boys who were not. This shows that boys with lower levels of testosterone were seen as less popular, they were failing in school and they had higher levels of aggression. Testosterone levels in children are associated with social success and popularity, rather than antisocial behavior and violent outbursts as other studies have reported.

Testosterone=the dominance hormone—more specifically, the social dominance hormone. It does not lead to social maladjustment.

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