Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Testosterone and dominance

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Testosterone and dominance:
What is the relationship between testosterone and dominance?

Overview[edit | edit source]

It has long been questioned whether there is a relationship between testosterone and dominance. If there is, to what extent and how is it apparent. This chapter will explore both testosterone and dominance separately before analysing psychological and physiological theories to determine the relationship between them.

Testosterone[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Testosterone acetate structure

Testosterone is a male sex hormone, also known as an androgen. It is responsible for male reproduction and sexual function. Despite being predominantly a male hormone, testosterone is also found in women. In men it is produced in the testes while in women it is produced in the ovaries (Andrology Australia, 2017).

How is testosterone produced?[edit | edit source]

Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone predominately[spelling?] produced in the gonads, although a small amount of testosterone is synthesised in the adrenal glands above the kidneys (Nussey & Whitehead, 2001). In males, testosterone is produced in the testes by Leydig cells; cells found in the connective tissue surrounding the seminiferous tubules (Johnson, Welsh Jr., Curley Jr. & Johnston, 2010). Leydig cells convert cholesterol like substances into testosterone when luteinising hormone is sent from the pituitary gland. The testosterone is then secreted into the bloodstream to circulate throughout the body (University of Leeds, 2017).

Testosterone secretion fluctuates throughout the lifetime with Leydig cells beginning to secrete testosterone two months into gestation. Testosterone levels are low at birth, increase during childhood, before the Leydig cells enlarge and activate in early adulthood. Testosterone plays an integral role in males during adolescence and early adulthood before decreasing with age (Johnson, Welsh Jr., Curley Jr. & Johnston, 2010). 

What is testosterone's function?[edit | edit source]

Testosterone has many functions, most of which are separated into two key areas; organising effects and activating effects. Organising effects are those that are long lasting and structural, for example the development of genitalia. Whereas activating effects are temporary and are only observed while a certain amount of the hormone is present[grammar?]. Essentially, organising effects set the stage for activating effects to take place (Kalat, 2016):

  • Organising effects take place during sensitive periods of development. During the first trimester of a pregnancy sex hormones determine the gender of the baby. If more testosterone is present then the baby develops male genitalia (Liu et al., 2012). However it should be noted that testosterone is not the only hormone involved in determining whether an embryo becomes male. Surges in testosterone also have organising effects during puberty, these can be observed as a deepened voice, growth of facial, pubic and body hair and an increase in muscle mass (Ahmed et al., 2008).
  • Activating effects induce secondary sex characteristics by activating neural circuits; neural circuits which were activated during testosterone's organising effects (Vigil et al., 2016). Activating effects can occur at any point during the lifespan, although generally begin at puberty, and include effects such as increased aggression and sexual arousal (Agrati, Fernandez-Guasti, Ferreno & Ferreira, 2011).

Dominance[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Human's[grammar?] are not the only animal to exhibit dominant behaviour.

Dominance is the disposition whereby an individual asserts control, power and influence over others (McFarland, 2010). It is not a characteristic unique to humans, instead it is consistent among all social animals.It results from animals of the same species competing for territory, food and mates.

In humans, dominance tends to be observed in social relationships, perhaps most obviously when disagreements arise. In social dynamics where disagreements occur frequently, instead of constantly fighting, it is common for a particular individual to assert the dominant role in the relationship. The dominant individual is most likely to make decisions, win arguments and act in a way beneficial to them, irrespective of their partner (Maestripieri, 2012). 

Dominance is often referred to as a manifestation of aggression and thus the two characteristics are often discussed together. However, studies show social dominance is not based on aggression, rather an emphasis on relationship quality (Francis, 1988). 

Test yourself!
 Take a moment to complete this short quiz to test your knowledge on what has been discussed so far.

1 What is another name for a male sex hormone?


2 The development of male genitalia is an activating effect of testosterone.



What is the name of the cells that produce testosterone in men?

4 Dominance is unique to humans.


Relationship between testosterone and dominance[edit | edit source]

Given the functions of testosterone, particularly its activating effects, it is fair to assume a relationship exists between the androgen and dominance. Dominance is a characteristic in which an individual asserts power and control over others, a characteristic directly correlated with the secondary sex characteristics associated with testosterone. When analysing theories of dominance, both psychological and physiological, the links between the hormone and [what?] characteristic become clear. In all known societies worldwide, men typically possess a higher social dominance[factual?]. Women are underrepresented in leadership roles, they receive less pay and are perceived as the weaker sex[factual?]. These discrepancies can all be attributed to the concept of male dominance (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Psychological Theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Sidanius & Pratto Social Dominance Theory (1999)[edit | edit source]

Sidanius and Pratto's Social Dominance Theory (SDT) (1999) emphasises the maintenance and stability of group based social hierarchies when analysing intergroup relations. The theory endeavours to explain why society is reliant on a hierarchy of groups and how legitimising myths justify the unfair advantage given to dominant groups (Moss, 2016). Sidanius & Pratto theorise that social inequalities are maintained via three key behaviours; institutional discrimination, aggregated individual discrimination and behavioural asymmetry.

  • Institutional discrimination occurs when an institution set rules, procedural and substantive, which effect the balance of power within a group. These institutions are able to influence which individuals receive social value and also have the power to create systematic terror. This terror comes in many forms and can be exhibited from various institutions including the police. The rules set by such institutions become systematic terror when they disproportionately target subordinates groups with the aim of maintaining dominance (Pratto, Sidanius & Levin, 2006).
  • Aggregated individual discrimination is classed as inconspicuous acts of discrimination committed between individuals on a day to day basis. This discrimination is simple, ordinary and readily observable in everyday life. An example of such discrimination is an employer choosing to hire one candidate over the other based solely on race (Pratto, Sidanius & Levin, 2006).
  • The third behaviour highlight in SDT is behavioural asymmetry, the notion that individual behaviours differ between people from different social groups. These differences in behaviour reinforce group hierarchies. This theory does not just highlight how dominant groups manipulate subordinate groups but also how subordinate groups contribute to their own oppression. Four types of behavioural asymmetry are outlined in SDT; asymmetrical in-group bias, out-group favouritism, self-debilitation and ideological asymmetry (Paciotti, 2017).    

Sidanius and Pratto (1999) suggest that the behaviours outlined above are justified through legitimising myths. Legitimising myths are socially and culturally accepted beliefs which are either hierarchy enhancing or hierarchy attenuating. Hierarchy enhancing legitimising myths such as racism increase inequality within a group, while those that are hierarchy attenuating for example feminism increase equality (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Individuals endorse different ideologies to varying degrees depending on their social dominance orientation (SDO). An SDO determines the extent an individual is geared towards a desire for dominance and group inequality. Those with a high SDO prefer hierarchy enhancing legitimatising[spelling?] myths while those with a low SDO prefer those that are hierarchy attenuating (Pratto, Stallworth, Sidanius & Siers, 1997). Individuals with a high SDO are predominantly male, suggesting that testosterone heightens a person desire for dominance and group inequality (Ratele, 2006). 

Dominance Hierarchies[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Chickens use linear dominance hierarchies.

A dominance hierarchy is defined as a group of individuals who interact socially to create a ranking system. The interactions which lead to rankings are often aggressive due to having to compete for resources. Schjelderup-Ebbe theorised that by creating dominance hierarchies, aggression within groups is decreased (Perrin, 1955).

There are two types of dominance hierarchies: linear and despotic. Linear hierarchies are those in which each individual has power over those below them, for example a pecking order. While despotic hierarchies are those where one individual is dominant over the entire group (Hermann, 2017). Studies show that in stabilised primate dominance hierarchies, testosterone levels are not reflective of social rank. However, when high-ranking male primates feel threatened their testosterone levels increase significantly (Ligneul & Dreher, 2017).

Approach - Avoidance vs. Dominance - Submissiveness[edit | edit source]

Approach-avoidance is the concept that explains fear of punishment and appetitive motivation. In terms of social interaction, motivation is often expressed through dominance and social aggression (Terburg & van Honk, 2013). This notion links approach-avoidance and dominance-submissiveness suggesting that testosterone contributes to deliberate dominant behaviours. Approach-avoidance vs. dominance-submissiveness studies have found that testosterone inhibits some levels of fear to promote reactive dominance. In the right social context, testosterone has the ability to maintain and increase social status by promoting dominant behaviours (Terburg & van Honk, 2013). Further studies into the effect testosterone has on social motivational behaviour have found testosterone to have regulatory properties[factual?]. A 2014 study found that a single dose of testosterone reduced automatic avoidance in healthy females during a social approach-avoidance task (Enter, Spinhoven & Roelofs, 2014).

Physiological Theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Dominance Behavioural System[edit | edit source]

The dominance behavioural system (DBS) is the biological system that directs dominant, subordinate and motivational behaviours, as well as control responses to perceived power. Research has found that a variety of psychopathologies are linked to issues with a person’s DBS[factual?]. Those prone to mania and narcissism report high levels dominance motivation while those who suffer anxiety and depression display submissive characteristics (Johnson, Leedom & Muhtadie, 2012).

Although various biochemical substrates make up the DBS, testosterone receives the most attention. Studies into basal testosterone found that testosterone could be used to predict dominance ratings among adolescents, while also predicting extreme dominance behaviours in violent criminals (Johnson, Leedom & Muhtadie, 2012). Studies into the DBS also show that when individuals with low levels of testosterone are placed in a higher social status they experience discomfort[factual?]. Testosterone not only increases the likelihood of dominance behaviours but also self-perceived power[factual?]. Testosterone effects how an individual’s DBS perceives their own social status. The higher the testosterone levels, the higher an individual’s confidence (Carre & McCormick, 2008).

The relationship between testosterone and cortisol[edit | edit source]

Testosterone’s influence on dominance is greatly influenced by the presence of cortisol (Mehta & Josephs, 2010). Some studies have found that in instances of leadership and competition, the positive correlation between testosterone and dominance only occurred when the individual also had low levels of cortisol. When individual[grammar?] reported high levels of cortisol, the effect of testosterone on dominance was diminished (Mehta & Josephs, 2010)[why?]

Test yourself!

Take a moment to complete this short quiz to test your knowledge on the relationship between testosterone and dominance.

1 Which is NOT one of the key behaviours proposed by Sidanius and Pratto?

Institutional discrimination.
Individual discrimination.
Appetitive motivation.
Behavioural asymmetry.

2 Testosterone and cortisol have no relationship.



What does SDO stand for?

4 A despotic hierarchy is where there is only 1 leader.


Sex crimes

An interesting application of the relationship between testosterone and dominance is the study of sex offenders. Sex offenders are categorised as criminals who have committed a crime of a sexual nature; crimes which include, but are not limited to, molestation, rape and sexual assault. The motives behind sex crimes vary from case to case, however regardless of motive, sex crimes are an act of violence driven by the offender’s desire to dominate (Stanford University, 2017). Many experts believe that the dominance desired by sex offenders is a manifestation of centuries of female subordination (Renzetti, Edleson & Kennedy Bergen, 2011).

Research has shown that sex offenders have above average testosterone levels, indicating that hypo-sexuality could be a critical aspect in detecting sex offenders (Gurnami & Dwyer, 2008). Studies have also shown that high serum testosterone levels correlate with a heightened risk of recidivism among sex offenders (Studer, Aylwin & Reddon, 2005).

However, it must be noted that research has identified correlations between testosterone, dominance and sex crimes. These finding do not suggest causation and thus just because an individual has an increased level of testosterone does not mean they will become a sex offender (Barber, 2009).

Practical Implications[edit | edit source]

Practical implications of the relationship between testosterone and dominance are vast[vague]. Some of these implications have already been applied in a practical setting, while others provide an outlook for the future[vague]. One of the key implications of the research is providing a biological reason for various psychological conditions. Testosterone levels have been found to correspond with particular psychological disorders. Although it is already known that hormones play a significant role in the severity of many psychological disorders, further research may allow an adjustment of testosterone levels to be used as a form of treatment (Altemus, 2010).

Assessing an individual's testosterone levels could also be used as a predictor of criminal behaviour. However, there is no research indicating that high testosterone levels are causation for criminal behaviour (Nguyen, 2016). As such, testosterone levels could only be used as a predictor, not as a diagnostic tool.

Understanding dominance and the theories behind it, both psychological and physiological, could assist in creating an inclusive society. With discrimination stemming from an individual's desire for dominance, if people were to have a greater understanding of this dominance discrimination may decrease (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). 

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Testosterone is the male sex hormone responsible for male reproduction and sexual functioning. Dominance is the characteristic whereby an individual seeks power and control over others. Both psychological and physiological research suggests that a relationship exists between the two. Studies show that testosterone is associated with aggression and a desire for power; two factors which lead to dominant behaviours. The level of testosterone, be it high or low, is shown to directly affect an individual’s behavioural characteristics. Although there has been much research into testosterone and its effects, more focused research into specific effect may lead to more practical applications. 

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Agrati, D., Fernandez-Guasti, A., Ferreno, M & Ferreira, A. (2011). Coexpression of sexual behaviour and maternal aggression: the ambivalence of sexually active mother rats toward male intruders. Behavioural Neuroscience, 125(3), 446-451. Doi: 10.1037/a0023085

Ahmed, E. I., Zehr, J. L., Schulz, K. M., Lorenz, B. H., DonCarlos, L. L. & Sisk, C. L. (2008). Pubertal hormones modulate the addition of new cells to sexually dimorphic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, 11(9), 995-997. Doi: 10.1038/nn.2178

Altemus, M. (2010). Hormone-specific psychiatric disorders: do they exist?. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 13(1), 25-26. Doi: 10.1007/s00737-009-0123-0

Andrology Australia. (2017). Low Testosterone. Retrieved from Andrology Australia website:

Barber, N. (2009). Sex, violence and hormones. Retrieved from Psychology today website:

Carre, J. M. & McCormick, C. M. (2008). Aggressive behaviour and change in salivary testosterone concentrations predict willingness to engage in a competitive task. Hormones and Behaviour, 54(3), 403-409. Doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.04.008

Enter, D., Spinhoven, P. & Roelofs, K. (2014). Alleviating social avoidance: effects of single does testosterone administration on approach-avoidance action. Hormones and Behaviour, 65(4), 351-354. Doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2014.02.001

Francis, R. C. (1988). On the relationship between aggression and social dominance. Ethology, 78(3), 223-237. Doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1988.tb00233.x

Hermann, H. R. (2017). Defining dominance and aggression. In H. Hermann, Dominance and Aggression in Humans and Other Animals (pp.1-25). Doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-805372-0.00001-8

Johnson, S. L., Leedhom, L. J. & Muhtadie, L. (2012). The dominance behavioural system and psychopathology: evidence from self-report, observational, and biological studies. Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 692-743. Doi: 10.1037/a0027503

Johnson, L., Welsh Jr., T. H., Curley Jr. & Johnston, C. E. (2010). Anatomy and physiology of the male reproductive system and potential targets of toxicants. Comprehensive Toxicology, 11(2), 5-59. Doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-801238-3.02134-6

Kalat, J. W. (2016). Biological Psychology. United States: Cengage Learning.

Ligneul, R. & Dreher, J. C. (2017). Social dominance representations in the human brain. In J. C. Dreher & L. Tremblay (Eds), Decision Neuroscience (pp.211-224). Doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-805308-9.00017-8

Liu, J., Dietz, K., DeLoyht, J. M., Pedre, X., Kelkar, D., Kaur, J., … Casaccia, P. (2012). Imparied adult myelination in the prefrontal cortex of socially isolated mice. Nature Neurscience, 15(12), 1621-1623. Doi: 10.1038/nn.3263

Maestripieri, D. (2012). Social dominance explained part 1. Retrieved from Psychology Today website:

McFarland, S. (2010). Authoritarianism, social dominance, and other roots of generalised prejudice. Political Psychology, 31(3), 453-477. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00765.x

Mehta, P. H. & Josephs, R. A. (2010). Testosterone and cortisol jointly regulate dominance: evidence for dual-hormone hypothesis. Hormones and Behaviour, 58(5), 898-906. Doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2010.08.020

Moss, S. (2016). Social dominance theory. Retrieved from Sico Tests website:

Nguyen, T. V., McCracken, J. T., Albaugh, M. D., Botteron, K. N., Hudziak, J. J. & Ducharme, S. (2016). A testosterone-related structural brain phenotype predicts aggressive behaviour from childhood to adulthood. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 63, 109-118. Doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.09.021

Nussey, S. S. & Whitehead, S. A. (2001). Endocrinology: an integrated approach. United States: CRC Press.

Paciotti, B. (2017). Lecture 9 and 10: social dominance theory (SDT). Retrieved from Brian Paciotti website:

Perrin, P. G. (1955). Pecking order 1927-1954. American Speech, 30(4), 265-268. Doi: 10.2307/453561

Pratto, F., Sidanius, J. & Levin, S. (2006). Social dominance theory and the dynamics of intergroup relations: taking stock and looking forward. European Review of Social Psychology, 17, 271-320. Doi 10.1080/10463280601055772

Pratto, F., Stallworth, L. M., Sidanius, J. & Siers, B. (1997). The gender gap in occupational role attainment: a social dominance approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1), 37-53. Doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.72.1.37

Ratele, K. (2006). Intergroup relations: South African perspectives. South Africa: Juta and Company Ltd

Renzetti, C. M., Edleson, J. L. & Kennedy Bergen, R. (2011). Sourcebook on violence against women. SAGE Publications: United States.

Sidanius, J. & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: an intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stanford University. (2017). Causes of sexual assault. Retrieved from Stanford University website:

Terburg, D. & van Honk, J. (2013). Approach-avoidance versus dominance-submissiveness: a multilevel neural framework on how testosterone promotes social status. Emotion Review, 5(3), 296-302. Doi: 10.1177/1754073913477510

University of Leeds. (2017). Male reproductive system: sertoli cells. Retrieved from The Histology Guide website:

Vigil, P., del Rio, J. P., Carrera, B., Aranguiz, F. C., Rioseco, H. & Cortes, M. E. (2016). Influence of sex steroid hormones on the adolescent brain and behaviour: an update. Linacre Quarterly, 83(3), 308-329. Doi: 10.1080/00243639.2016.1211863

External links[edit | edit source]