Does Testosterone Affect Empathy?
Oct 14 2019 Read 1327 Times
In a milestone study from the University of Pennsylvania, a team of researchers has confirmed that testosterone levels do not affect cognitive empathy, a term used to describe a person's ability to read and recognise the feelings of another individual. The study was the largest of its kind and challenges the theory that autism reflects a 'hyper-masculinised brain' and compromises cognitive empathy. The theory is based largely on the fact that autism is far more common in males than in females, a statistic that led researchers to blame testosterone.
"Of course, the primary suspect when we have something that is sharply differentiated by sex is testosterone," explains Gideon Nave, leader of the study.
No link between primary male sex hormone and cognitive empathy
The research involved two controlled studies of almost 650 men, each receiving either a topical application of testosterone gel or a placebo. They were then asked to complete behavioural tasks and questionnaires designed to measure cognitive empathy. The men were also shown a photograph of a set of eyes and asked to describe the emotional expression. After comparing results, the team found no evidence linking high levels of the primary male sex hormone to reduced cognitive empathy. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences assert there is no correlation between the two.
"Several earlier studies have suggested a connection between testosterone and reduced cognitive empathy, but samples were very small, and it's very difficult to determine a direct link," says Amos Nadler, first author of the study. "Our results unequivocally show that there is not a linear causal relation between testosterone exposure and cognitive empathy."
Researchers suggest a "complex, not linear" relationship
While the findings suggest high levels of testosterone don't jeopardise cognitive empathy, Nave admits "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" and says that if testosterone does have an influence, "the effect is complex, not linear. Reality is typically not that simple."
When commenting on the 'hyper-masculinised brain' theory associated with autism, Nave says the new study helps to debunk the model and claims “if you look at the literature carefully, there is still not really strong support for it."
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