Are Steroid Users More Honest?

Q: Does new German research show that testosterone improves honesty?

A:  The conventional thinking is that testosterone and other anabolic steroids increase aggression and anti-social behaviors.  After decades of media demonization of steroids, the average TV viewer thinks steroids cause spontaneous ‘roid rage in most users.  Testosterone is viewed as so dangerous that police departments have begun hunting cops who might be on medical testosterone replacement therapy, apparently fearing that they may go berserk on the beat.

But what if it’s wrong?  What if testosterone’s role in human behavior is far more complex?  What if testosterone is responsible for positive, pro-social behaviors we’dwant in cops, like selfless heroism?  Recent research already points in that direction and now a groundbreaking study links higher testosterone levels with greater honesty.

Scientists in Bonn, Germany, recently looked at what effect the administration of 50 mg of testosterone might have upon truthfulness.  They took 91 healthy young men and conducted a double-blind version of a die-rolling experiment.  About half were given a testosterone gel, boosting their levels; the rest were given a placebo gel.  A day later, the subjects were instructed to roll the six-sided die once in private and enter the number into a computer.  They were told they would be paid in Euros equal to the number they claimed they rolled (and no money for 6).  Those willing to lie to get more money would claim higher numbers (except for 6) than they actually rolled.  The numbers from each group were tabulated and compared against the statistically expected outcomes.  Both groups claimed better results than statistics would have predicted.  But the subjects whose levels had been boosted by testosterone reported significantly lower numbers and thus had lower payoffs than the placebo group. The difference was most striking for the number 5, which (at 5 Euros) invoked the greatest incentive to lie, with 62.2% in the placebo group claiming to have rolled it versus only 34.8% in the high testosterone group.  The conclusion of the researchers: testosterone significantly decreases self-serving lying in men.

So, should the housewives, bosses and political constituents of the world immediately put their respective husbands, employees and politicians on a robust course of testosterone therapy?  Maybe, but not based just on this study.  After all, it’s possible that all the subjects were telling the truth, and that the control group dudes were just extraordinarily lucky and the testosterone group was just a lot less good at rolling the dice.  But … odds are that’s pretty unlikely.

Nobody seriously thinks a dollop of testosterone will turn a habitual liar into a beacon of honesty, or that a hardcore juicer’s steroid cycle acts like truth serum when his girlfriend discovers an unfamiliar thong in the sheets.  I know many steroid users and I know many non-users and frankly I detect no difference in their honesty.  Nor do I see guys turn from pillars of truth into piles of perjury when their levels dip between cycles. I doubt you do either.  While the researchers can’t totally rule out the possibility that testosterone directly makes people more honest, they do offer the more intriguing interpretation that testosterone increases one’s self-image or “pride,” and that making “a subject feel proud [leads] to the avoidance of behavior considered ‘cheap’ or dishonorable.”  It is pride, they thoughtfully suggest, that may make subjects in the higher testosterone group lie less.

Of course, there’s more to honesty – and to aggression – than testosterone.  The precise mechanisms of action are less important now than the growing overall recognition that hormones affect our behavior in nuanced and complicated ways, and that testosterone’s effects are far from the dumbed-down, negative portrait painted by alarmist reporters.

That’s good news for testosterone, and for the millions of men now receiving medically prescribed testosterone replacement therapy who were also buoyed by a whopping new study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.  It’s the lack of enough testosterone which will, over the next 20 years, result in more than a million cases of cardiovascular disease and a million cases of diabetes. (Remember, the gradual erosion of the testosterone levels of American men compelled Alpha Male Challenge, the Rodale book I co-authored.)  Science increasingly suggests that for mature adults, a medical dose of extra testosterone may not necessarily be such a bad thing.  And that, my friends, is the truth.

Rick Collins, JD, CSCS [www.rickcollins.com] is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation.  [© Rick Collins, 2012.  All rights reserved.  For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice. Adapted from a column in Muscular Development magazine.]