Testosterone is the fundamental factor for the admirable manly traits that are portrayed by men, for instance, like Denzel Washington in the Equalizer, Idris Elba in Pacific Rim, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible sequel, Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne sequel, Will Smith in Gemini Man… you get the picture.
Calm & collected, assertive, focused, creative, structured, smart, responsible, protective, respected, etc.
Over the past couple of decades the media (and some research) has tried to portray high testosterone males as aggressive, dominant, rebellious, trouble makers, bullies, selfish and unrighteous – linking this behavior to psycopaths, serial killers, inmates and so on. However, this is a very false picture of high testosterone.
Let me just give a disclaimer here that testosterone is not the only hormone involved in personality, but that personality is influenced and formed (but can still be changed) by a lot of things, for instance, trauma early in life, decision making of how to deal with unfortunate events that lead to certain solidified beliefs and mindsets, love or rejection experienced, role models early in life, mentality of parents and friends, mood, expectations, opportunities, blood sugar, as well as other hormones such as estrogen, cortisol and serotonin. All of these factors play a vital rule in personality.
But for the sake of this article I’d like to focus on the influence that testosterone has on personality.
Testosterone & assertiveness
Testosterone is shown to increase assertiveness and self-perspective (meaning you think well of yourself) and reduces fear, intimidation (or perceived threat from someone) and anxiety, but only in the presence of low cortisol (R, R, R, R, R, R). When cortisol is high, however, along with high testosterone, it may actually decrease dominance and in turn result in submission and lower status.
Have you ever needed to make an important phone call, talk to a pretty lady, confront someone, ask for a promotion and didn’t feel very confident and assertive? Although feeling a bit anxious is normal, testosterone helps to lower anxiety and promotes assertiveness. People tend to only trust and respect confident and assertive individuals and not fearful and low confident ones.
High testosterone combined with elevated GABA and dopamine can completely abolish anxiety. Coincidingly, testosterone increases the synthesis of dopamine as well as upregulates the GABA-A receptor, which will help with staying calm, collected and prevent anxiety (R, R, R).
As a side note, assertiveness is not aggression or the desire to dominate others, but rather the ability to speak your mind when needed, make decisions that you think are right even if others don’t agree with you and just be able to live life the way you want without worrying what others will think or say about you.
Testosterone & staying calm
Testosterone promotes a calm demeanor, whereas estrogen promotes excitation and can seem like an abundance of energy but can actually lead to manic behavior if too high. Testosterone promotes the ability to stay calm and controlled (not doing foolish things), whereas estrogen promotes excitation and attention deficit disorders (R, R).
DHT is also heavily involved in stress resilience as DHT inhibits the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis when under stress, thus preventing the rise in CRH, ACTH and cortisol (R).
Cortisol promotes arousal, aggression, depression (if elevated chronically) and anxiety to a stimuli, as well as enhancing the consolidation of memories of adverse events. It’s been thought that studying under stress aids in memory formation, which is true, but this style of learning actually reduces the recall of what you have learned. Testosterone and DHT will improve stress resilience and aid in proper recall.
Ever hit a blank when you were stressed? Testosterone and especially DHT can help to prevent that.
Testosterone is thought to promote impulsivity and risk taking; his is via the upregulation of the alpha-2A adrenergic receptors. But it’s actually estrogen that increases that receptor and promotes excitation and impulsivity, not testosterone (R, R).
Additionally, impulsivity is promoted by serotonin; caused by a reduction in serotonin transporters, reduced MAO-A (the enzyme that breaks serotonin down) and elevated serotonin receptor 5-HT2A. (R, R). Interestingly, estrogen reduces the serotonin transporter and MAO-A activity and increases the expression of 5-HT2A. Estrogen is one of the most potent inducers of serotonin. So estrogen and serotonin will synergistically promote impulsivity.
It’s been found that men with high testosterone don’t have more risky behavior than men with lower T, but it’s cortisol and catecholamines (noradrenaline and adrenaline), not testosterone, that predict instability and risk taking (R, R).
Men with higher testosterone weigh the positives and negatives of a decision very rapidly and then make a calculated decision, which to others may then seem like a risky decision.
Many of the top leaders/money makers/investors have carefully calculated the downsides of a decision and have a specific pre-requisite (a series of questions) that the situation/decision has to meet before the decision is made. If the decision meets all or most of the pre-requisites, it’s an easy decision and will usually seem like a risky decision to others.
Plus, men with higher testosterone are more likely to reject time pressure offers, which shows that testosterone make you more cool in decision making (R). As a general rule, if you ever feel pressured to make a financial decision in a hurry, don’t do it. You might have a little denial-remorse but soon after you’ll be very happy you said no.
On the flip side, low T and cortisol promote risk-taking behavior. This study puts it nicely (R):
“heightened secretion of cortisol: and the effects this might have on anxiety, risk-perception etc could easily be translated into an increased tendency for herding behavior, and hence market de-stabilization.”
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself: “Sometimes you got to take a leap of faith and make a risky decision to get a good deal.” you are right. It’s low testosterone and low dopamine that creates the “want to play it safe” behavior and not take the necessary risks to excel in life. Note there is a difference between random risk taking and calculated risk taking.
As a side note, men with higher testosterone make more money than men with lower testosterone.
Check out another good quote from this paper (R):
“The findings suggest that when cortisol decreases, rising testosterone is implicated in adaptive bargaining behavior that maximizes earnings and relationship quality. But when cortisol increases, rising testosterone is related to conflict between social and financial motives, weak earnings, and poor relationship quality.”
Testosterone & mental function
Testosterone improves spatial memory (spatial memory is a form of memory responsible for the recording of information about one’s environment and spatial orientation), but only if estrogen is kept low. DHT also has this effect, but it’s actually mainly DHT that is responsible for this improvement (R).
Testosterone also improves verbal memory, which influences how fluently you combine thought and speech. Estrogen on the other hand is excitatory and speeds up how fast you can talk. People that like to talk a lot and talk fast most likely have elevated estrogen, or overly activated NMDA receptor and glutamate release.
Testosterone promotes attention to detail, but not OCD, which is driven by serotonin (5-HT2C overactivation). Cortisol impairs detection of errors, which reduces the quality of your work, decision making, etc. Stress also impairs executive functions such as attention, task management, planning and behavioral inhibition (opposite of impulsive behavior).
Stress, or cortisol and low dopamine, also increases reward sensitivity, which leads to a tendency to favor short-term over longer-term gains, immediate small reward vs delayed large reward. For example, people who stop at the drive-through instead of waiting to get home to cook a healthier meal.
Testosterone & competitiveness
Testosterone increases competitiveness, the ability to see opportunities, the desire to go after those opportunities and the drive to take action.
However this increase in competitiveness is without spite (R). It’s not the kind of competitiveness where you want to beat someone, humiliate them and/or gain power over others; it’s rather the kind where you want to gain improvement in your own life and feel good about yourself for doing so.
When I was in college I was super competitive (I still am), I was ready for any challenge, but when I won, I never gloated about it or give the idea that I was better than the other guy. It was merely for the fun of it all. If he beat me, I’d just be more motivated to improve myself in order to be better than I was before. It was always about the competition and never about holding a personal grudge.
Men with higher testosterone do want to earn more, be more, enjoy more and so on. There is nothing wrong with that. No one wants to continue to earn $1K per month. Testosterone helps you feel unsatisfied with suboptimal conditions and propels you to do something smart about it.
Interestingly, men with lower testosterone that were put into a high status position showed poorer cognitive functioning than those with higher testosterone: the reverse occurred after being put into lower status positions (R).
I can personally attest to this, before my wife and I became entrepreneurs we worked in the family business. We both started in low positions without much possibility of growth and the job just sucked the life out of us…it really reduces cognitive functioning. Testosterone helped to motive me (moderate T and high progesterone in her case) to leave the family business to create our own lives. It was risky, but for the outcome that it would give, it was by far the best decision ever (apart from marrying my wife).
Competitiveness and improving status ties in with the misconception of the desire for power. Some people might think that someone that is driven, competitive and status seeking wants power over others, but that is not the case.
“…testosterone increases positive attitudes toward positional goods when they are described as status-enhancing, but not when they are described as power-enhancing or high in quality.” (R)
The desire to rule over others and control them is more likely driven through early trauma in life, fear (high cortisol) and excess serotonin.
Plus, studies show that testosterone injections increased generosity, cooperation, and honesty (R), all of which are pro-social non-aggressive behaviors that may promote one’s status.
Elevated testosterone also increases fair bargaining behavior, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions (R). Serotonin can have the opposite effect as those with high platelet serotonin were more unfair and less likely to reject unfairness (R).
Testosterone & mood
Elevated testosterone is associated with low anxiety and depression and elevated motivation, euphoria and the ability to enjoy things more, but only when cortisol is low (R).
Have you ever been with someone that seemingly can’t see the good in things or be able to enjoy life as you do? That is most likely driven by an excess of cortisol and serotonin. Excess serotonin promotes anhedonia, so if you want to enjoy life, keep that serotonin low and testosterone and dopamine high.
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