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Too Much Testosterone Lowers Empathy

Too Much Testosterone Lowers Empathy Excess testosterone negatively affects a person’s ability to “mind read,” an indicator of empathy, say researchers from Utrecht and Cambridge Universities.

The study has important implications for the androgen theory of autism (testosterone is an androgen) and confirms earlier rodent research that shows that testosterone in early brain development organizes the activation of the hormone in later life.

Professor Jack van Honk and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen designed the study that was conducted in Utrecht. In it, researchers administered testosterone under the tongue of volunteers.

They used the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” task as the test of mind reading, which tests how well someone can infer what a person is thinking or feeling from photographs of facial expressions from around the eyes.

Mind reading is one aspect of empathy, a skill that shows significant sex differences in favor of females. They tested 16 young women from the general population, since women on average have lower levels of testosterone than men. The decision to test just females was to maximize the possibility of seeing a reduction in their levels of empathy.

The researchers not only found that administration of testosterone leads to a significant reduction in mind reading, but that this effect is powerfully predicted by the 2D:4D digit ratio, a marker of prenatal testosterone. Those people with the most masculinized 2D:4D ratios showed the most pronounced reduction in the ability to mind read.

Baron-Cohen said, “This study contributes to our knowledge of how small hormonal differences can have far-reaching effects on empathy.”

The new study has several important implications; first, that current levels of testosterone directly affect the ability to read someone else’s mind. This may help explain why on average women perform better on such tests than men, since men on average produce more testosterone than women.

Second, that the digit ratio (2D:4D), a marker of fetal testosterone, predicts the extent to which later testosterone has this effect. This suggests testosterone levels in the womb have an “organizing” or long-range effect on later brain function.

Finally, given that people with autism have difficulties in mind reading, and that autism affects males more often than females, the study provides further support for the androgen theory of autism.

The study is found in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Cambridge

Too Much Testosterone Lowers Empathy

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Too Much Testosterone Lowers Empathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 21, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2011/02/10/too-much-testosterone-lowers-empathy/23372.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.