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The Testosterone Curse, Part 2

When men behave badly, is their testosterone to blame?

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The Many Woes of the High-T Male

To date, psychologist James McBride Dabbs' Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers (2000) is the best book to investigate not simply the physical effects of high testosterone in males, but its mental and emotional ramifications as well. At times, its interpretations may be a bit simplistic or exaggerated (taking certain liberties with the research it so painstakingly reports), but it still provides a wealth of valuable information on the subject. Most of the points I'll be making relate to the numerous research studies he covers in his book, including some of his own. For--as one early reviewer noted--Dabbs "is to testosterone what Oliver Sacks is to madness."

One of the characteristics of high-T males most commonly documented is their drive toward dominance. And this predilection is to be distinguished from any straightforward aggressive tendencies. Unlike non-human animals, where a direct connection between testosterone and aggression has been repeatedly demonstrated, in humans the correlation between high-T and aggression, though positive, is only weakly so. This is probably the case because many uniquely human personality variables determine both the experience, and the expression, of aggression. However, the correlation between elevated t-levels and the desire for dominance is a strong one.

Not to say that there aren't certain (at least temporary) advantages for those prone to dominate others. After all, heroism and leadership frequently link to this typically masculine trait. Additionally, dominance is generally associated with self-confidence; and believing in oneself is a quality almost universally viewed as beneficial. Even so, in terms of one's personal relationships, little question exists but that those able to deal cooperatively--or collaboratively--with others are generally the happiest, most content, and successful.

Moreover, as the literature on high-T males attests, dominant individuals also tend to be extremely competitive, and are frequently "endowed" with what's commonly known as the "killer instinct." In sports, such a trait can, frankly, be quite useful. And in business, too, it can be pragmatic--in cutthroat businesses, it's undeniably an asset, and may actually be essential. But, again, as regards getting along well in not so narrowly defined contexts, it's almost always a liability. For a driving need to compete with others undermines the empathy, understanding, tolerance, and compassion necessary to sustain close, caring relationships.

At its worst, high-T dominance and competitiveness can involve brute force, violence, and fighting behavior of all kinds. As Dabbs bluntly puts it, high-T males can be "rough and callous." Their more tender feelings literally "blunted" by elevated testosterone levels, they tend not to be particularly concerned about--or, for that matter, interested in--the feelings of others. And unmoderated feelings such as lust, resentment, or rage can easily preempt the softer feelings of love, compassion, or forgiveness. It's similar to men on steroids, especially vulnerable to being "taken over" by powerful feelings--the reason that the term "roid rage" (indeed, sometimes tied to "road rage") has become so popular in the press.

Sadly, there's seems to be something about high testosterone levels that contributes to an almost predatory frame of mind, at least for those not reared very caringly in childhood. (And since T-levels are typically seen as heritable, the risk of their being subject to such unsympathetic parenting is a clear possibility.) At the least, high-T males have been "blessed"--or (ahem)--"cursed" with the raw energy to do things to the extreme. And so they're naturally at risk of abusing this energy in potentially dangerous ways. As one study has noted, "those with higher levels of testosterone are more inclined to smoke, drink alcohol excessively and indulge in risky behavior that leads to injury."

Complementing this tendency to be imprudent, rash, or even reckless, are a variety of research findings indicating that high-testosterone males are more likely to be impulsive, impatient, unreliable, and (as Dabbs describes it) "single-minded to the point of obsessiveness." By nature leaning--competitively or confrontationally--toward raucous or rugged physical activities, they frequently don't perform well academically. And (no surprise) in school one of their problems is that they may not deal very well with intellectual complexities.

High testosterone can't by itself predict a male's behavior (or, for that matter, a female's either). For the fearlessness--or willingness to take risks--so common in high-T individuals doesn't tell us what kinds of risks that person might be most likely to take. Such choices ultimately derive from one's personal values, and the values that motivate people's behavior are multiply determined. All the same, high T-levels have been associated with higher rates of delinquency. And given the greater impulsivity of males with high-T--and the impaired judgment linked to such not-well-contemplated behavior--they're obviously in greater danger of veering toward the dark side. Certainly, high T-levels have been linked to psychopathy and the tendency to ignore the rights of others--treating them in careless, if not altogether harmful, ways.

To end the second part of this post where the first began, I'd like to expand a bit on some of the points I made earlier about how high-testosterone males have difficulty treating the opposite sex with the consideration and respect they deserve. Insufficiently sensitive to a girl's or woman's feelings, they also struggle with simply appreciating these feelings. And so, among other things, they typically don't function particularly well in marriages. In fact, the statistics available on this topic indicate that they're more likely to divorce and--indeed--less likely to marry in the first place.

Additionally, having such a strong need for dominance virtually guarantees that their marriages will be problematic. Overall, they're less satisfied in their marriage (as compared to lower-T males). And their difficulty accepting their mates as true (and non-competitive) equals assures a degree of conflict hardly compatible with the best unions. Here Dabbs cites the work of marital theorist John Gottman--perhaps the world's pre-eminent authority on what makes intimate relationships work--by noting his findings that egalitarian marriages are the most successful. High-T males, with their propensity to dominate (and even pick fights--whether they be for fun or blood), hardly fit the picture of Gottman's ideal husband, ready and willing to share power and control.

All of the above is not to say that being a male with elevated testosterone levels is all bad. Certainly, on the football field, and in the boardroom (and, at times, in the bedroom as well!), it definitely can have its advantages. But in the end I think the various woes of the high-T male considerably outweigh its benefits.

To make a final point here--and one that just may be the clincher--men high in testosterone also have higher mortality rates. . . . And with that, I rest my case.

Note 1: If you missed it earlier, here's the link to Part 1 of this post.

Note 2: If you found this post informative and think those you know might also, please consider sending them its link. Additionally, if you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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