The Chris Benoit Tragedy

The terrible, heart-wrenching tragedy of wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and son has prompted many media sources to quickly blame steroids as the direct cause. Before jumping on that band wagon, read an alternative point of view from Jack Darkes, PhD, an Assistant Professor and Associate Scholar of the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida. Dr. Darkes has extensive clinical experience with drugs of addiction, and has researched and authoritatively written on the subject of anabolic steroids and behavior. He says:

Anabolic Steroids are synthetic versions of the hormone testosterone. Higher levels of natural testosterone are related to dominant and competitive behavior, but not necessarily aggression except in certain situations. Those in more dominant or competitive occupations or who are more risk-taking often have higher natural testosterone levels. Natural testosterone levels also fluctuate in anticipation of competition and as a function of the outcome of competition.

‘Roid rage is a popular term suggesting that users of anabolic steroids might show impulsive unprovoked ultra-aggressive behavior. It is not a scientific concept. In fact, among scientists there is little agreement on the causal relationship between anabolic steroid use and aggressive behavior and many have concluded that it does not exist.

Aggressive responding or tendencies are assessed by using questionnaires that ask about behavior, either in general, the past, or in specific situations. The resulting scores are used to compare groups to each other, evaluate changes within groups over time or both. Laboratory tasks involving simulated interactions/competitions provide scores for certain types of aggressive responses that also can be used to compare groups or evaluate changes over time. Lastly, naturally-occurring aggressive behavior can be assessed by asking others in the person’s environment (e.g., family, spouse) to observe and report on their behavior.

In anabolic steroid research, surveys use questionnaires to assess large numbers of users who self-administer anabolic steroids. As a group, users report levels of aggression that are higher than non-users (recall that this is not “’roid rage”). However, users may be different to begin with, i.e., they may have been more aggressive than non-users prior to beginning anabolic steroid use. Steroid use does not occur randomly in the population and such surveys cannot tell us about cause because co-occurrence does not prove causation. Users who show increased aggression with anabolic steroid use may be characteristically more aggressive.

Experimental studies administer steroids to randomly assigned participants (most often with no history of use), which controls for prior differences. The findings of these studies are not consistent, but at most suggest minimal increases in aggression with steroid administration. Questionnaires indicate either no change or minimal change in aggression. Laboratory analog tasks assessing changes in aggressive responding may show some small effects, but similar responding has been found among marijuana users in withdrawal. Significant others report minimal if any changes in aggressive actions among those administered steroids. Notably, at least one study reported that those receiving a placebo but told they received a steroid, showed increases in aggression, suggesting that expectation or anticipation are also important in steroid effects. Also of note, levels of steroids in the blood are not necessarily correlated to behavioral symptoms. The above research paints a complex picture of the rare occurrence of aggression that might be seen in anabolic steroid users, one that includes existing individual differences, social and contextual factors and the expectations and psychological state of the individual.

The use of anabolic steroids by adolescents has drawn attention as of late. Adolescence is a time of increased involvement in many risky behaviors, including the use of many types of drugs. Thankfully, steroids are used by far fewer teenagers than are other major drugs of abuse, such as marijuana or cocaine. Using any drug during this period when the brain is developing toward its adult configuration might have lasting behavioral effects. Animal studies suggest that high doses of anabolic steroids taken for extended periods by adolescents might lead to behavioral changes that last beyond cessation of use, presumably by affecting brain organization at this crucial time. Similar long-lasting effects with other drugs have been reported for several years.  We must differentiate adolescent drug use from adult use. Adolescents are not simply smaller younger adults. The application of such findings to this case seems unwarranted.

The Chris Benoit affair, although a case study in tragedy, cannot inform us about the nature of steroid effects nor does the science suggest that steroids caused this event. It is a dramatic demonstration but impressions based on such case studies exaggerate relationships and are subject to a number of biases. It is normal to seek reasons for such events to manage our anxiety and horror by assigning cause or blame. But that is the role of society, its media and the legal system. From a scientific point of view, such jumping to conclusions creates biases that once established can be hard to overcome. Once our mind is made up, we heavily weight confirming evidence and ignore conflicting information. For instance, in cases like this, when a professional wrestler or bodybuilder is involved, the potential connection to steroids is immediately and inevitably offered; it appeared in this case before reports noted that prescription steroids were found in the residence. It persists after reports of a negative test in April. And, although toxicology reports provide no definitive causal information (again the science has not shown correlations between blood levels of steroids and behavioral effects), it likely will only increase at that point.

Science works with groups of participants and offers probability statements not absolute conclusions. No scientist can say with certainty what caused this event. And science does not prove negatives; hence it cannot prove that anabolic steroids were not involved. But the science, in this case, suggests that if steroids were involved, they were one piece of a much more complex picture. Too many other factors are unknown and may never be known and behavior is simply too complex.