Increases in testosterone (also known as test or T), either endogenous or exogenous, can increase aggression and anger, and this has been shown in research and studies. However, it is a little more complicated than that, as researchers today are mixed on whether testosterone makes you angry or if perhaps other factors are at play, such as cultural norms, psychological issues, or other pharmaceuticals and drugs. Let us dive into the nitty-gritty of testosterone and anger and see if we can make sense of this controversial topic.
History of testosterone and anger
The conversation around test levels and anger, or should I say the stigma, was first seen back in the 1980s. During the 80s, there was an awakening surrounding anabolic steroids in the news. Exogenous testosterone or anabolic steroids were new to the general public, and athletes were being caught cheating in sports by taking anabolic steroids. A famous example of this was Ben Johnson, a Canadian sprinter who won a gold medal at the 1988 summer Olympics. He was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for anabolic steroids. This negative sports news surrounding anabolic steroids coupled with a rash of high-profile violent incidents involving steroid users sparked a news frenzy on the topic of steroids. These high-profile cases played in the news and piqued the average person’s interest in anabolic steroids. During this time, the term “roid rage” was coined and became a staple in the media of the day to describe any muscular person or athlete who became angry.
The term roid rage and the stigma surrounding steroids have persisted even today. Is this lousy reputation warranted, or is roid rage and increased anger an urban myth?
Can high testosterone make you angry?
Elevated test levels correlate with increases in anger and verbal and physical aggression. Studies show that testosterone stimulates and increases the activity in the brain regions responsible for aggression. The brain areas responsible for aggression are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for identifying threats, signals an alarm. The prefrontal cortex checks the alarm signal from the amygdala and determines if it is a valid threat. One study found that elevated test levels made people more untrusting. This decrease in trust makes sense because if the threat centers in your brain get stimulated, you are in a state of hypersensitivity to threats. The increased testosterone shifts the decision-making from the rational areas of the brain to the more primitive, instinctual and animalistic regions of the brain.
Elevated test levels can also decrease a person’s ability to be empathetic. Empathy is simply the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This suppression of empathy was discovered when psychologists experimented with twenty women. The women took exogenous test, and the psychologists measured the subject’s facial muscle response to different images and videos. The women’s response to the photos demonstrated a decrease in empathy. If a person is less empathetic, they are less likely to be patient or understanding with others. This decrease in patience and understanding can lead to increased conflict and confrontation with others.
Some character trait variables come into play regarding aggression and anger. Not all people who take the hormone will develop anger or aggressive tendencies. The importance of character traits in determining if testosterone will cause anger was demonstrated in a research study done by psychologists at the brock university in Canada. The researchers found that subjects who did not have a dominant character before taking the hormone did not show any increase in aggression or anger. The test subjects who had a dominant personality before increased aggressiveness.
It is clear from the studies referenced above that increasing testosterone can lead to anger and aggressive behaviour. However, the degree to which the hormone causes aggressive behaviour depends in some capacity on the individual’s character traits. If you are a kind and patient person before taking it, you are not likely to become angry and aggressive. Another factor that could play a role is the placebo effect. Suppose society and the media perpetuate the notion that “roid rage” is real and that taking steroids will turn you into a raging angry maniac. In that case, you might be more likely to live up to that stereotype. The placebo effect or the power of suggestion is a genuine and powerful phenomenon and could play a role.
Can low testosterone make you angry?
Low test levels does not directly make a person angry, but it can cause mood changes. People with low test levels often experience irritability and depression. If not treated properly, both of these issues can lead to anger and aggression over time as the person becomes frustrated with their feelings and poor mood. Often testosterone therapy can reverse these mood changes. Studies show that low testosterone causes depression, but does depression lead to anger or violent behaviour? The answer to that question appears to be a yes. Depression does lead to violence. A population-level study published in The Lancet in 2015 concluded a significant link between depression and violent crimes. Those individuals who suffered from depression were more likely to commit violent crimes.
Is it a stretch to conclude that low testosterone levels will lead to depression, and then depression will lead to anger and violent crimes? Perhaps, but it shows that anger, aggression, and violence are complex things and cannot be distilled down to one hormone and certainly cannot be blamed on just high testosterone levels or anabolic steroids.
Summary of testosterone levels and anger
Testosterone is a powerful anabolic hormone. It should be used with caution and always under the supervision of a doctor if you are experiencing low hormone levels and want to try testosterone replacement therapy but are afraid of “roid rage” or changes in mood. Talk to your doctor, and they should be able to put your mind at ease that the risk of becoming angry or aggressive is low to non-existent. The opposite is true; if you have normal testosterone levels and want to boost them for athletic gain, you should also consult your doctor to monitor your health and lab values to ensure you remain healthy.
The above information should not be taken as health or medical advice. Always consult with your family doctor.