Testosterone: The Hormone of Proactivity

Could we not find a less politically loaded term than aggression? As we've seen, individual researchers are quite happy that they understand what they mean, and they define it quite specifically in terms of the study they are carrying out. The trouble is that no one else understands the word in that way.

Descriptions of the endocrine system give a picture of something static and unchanging. Certainly there seems to have been little work done on variation of androgens and estrogens on a minute to minute situational basis. Indeed, endocrinologists do not seem to share the interest in them that biologists have. Bancroft suggests that human males are 'overdetermined' for testosterone and make more than they need for behavioural purposes. Why should this be? It seems unlikely that the body would make large amounts of a substance then store it in the blood plasma without some good reason.

Let us view the problem from an engineering viewpoint - hormones as part of an active, dynamic system. Aggression is one outcome of the fight/flight reaction, if fighting is the better strategy. The system, however, is defensive, reactive, only operating in the presence of a threat. The effect has to be experienced first before corrective action can be taken. A system that can anticipate events, and can promote a state of readiness, will be at an advantage compared to one that simply responds to events as they happen. If we apply feed-forward by the use of testosterone, it becomes proactive.

A thought experiment, perhaps, but, I would suggest, at least as reasonable, and not so open to political connotations. Can it, however, prevail against the entrenched stereotype that testosterone is equivalent to violent aggression, even in biology, which claims to be an objective science?

Clearly, some individuals may be in an inappropriate proactive mode - forever looking for a fight that never materialises.

In a quarrelsome species, testosterone may increase readiness to fight, it might improve the reflexes and make a better fighter. To live in such a species, proactivity would be necessary. But it would be the result not the cause - an effect not of biology, but of social organisation. The tendency to fight may come from a number of factors.

It seems as though I am saying that males are more proactive than females but, unlike aggression, proactivity is not taken to be synonymous with violence. In any case, female behaviour has not been well studied, or at least, not well publicised, obsessed as we are by males and violence.

Having rid ourselves of the stereotype of testosterone and aggression, let us consider what benefits androgens might bring once one became involved in a fight, or some endeavour, perhaps requiring endurance or extra reserves of strength - features that may have been largely unresearched, or, at least, not well publicised. One aspect of the studies that have quoted is whether they distinguished between free testosterone and the total including that bound up in the plasma. It is inferred that it is stored ready for use, presumably for rapid deployment. This would also suggest that its expression would be only a short term, transitory, feature. This would in turn, produce difficulties in measurement. There were a series of studies which attempted to show an increase in sexual arousal. They were inconclusive. Although the subjects did all that they were asked, in the laboratory situation, they simply didn't feel sexually aroused. The problems are likely to be even greater in fleeting day to day situations of anger, frustration, or simply running for a bus.

Go to top of page  
Bland, J.,(1998) About Gender: Testosterone: The Hormone of Proactivity.
Book graphics courtesy of
Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
Last amended 26.04.98