New Research Shows Testosterone Doesn't Grant Success in Life

We can finally say its role was sorely overstated.
Brad Bergan
A male hand lifting a weight.greenleaf123 / iStock

The Olympics are here, and everyone is playing to win. But a year of global calamity has brought more of us closer to questioning the consensus on what it takes to succeed in life.

During the twenty-teens, consensus was that higher testosterone levels played a significant role in achieving success in sports and life, but new research shows that it may not be the shoo-in to performance for men and women that we were led to believe, according to a press release shared with IE under embargo.

With waning social norms, we can finally question some misguided myths surrounding the hormone.

Researchers isolated high testosterone vs. outcome

It's widely believed that testosterone is linked to socioeconomic position, despite the higher rate of female-to-male college graduates for the last five years, and misleading statistics about income disparities that base their analyses on the univariable term of gender as the only determinant for ultimate income and employment status. Breaking with the convention of the twenty-teens, the researchers from the University of Bristol's MRC Integrated Epidemiology Unit (IEU) and Population Health Sciences decided to test the myth linking testosterone to socioeconomic position, instead of the reverse, or health affecting both position and testosterone levels.

The researchers isolated the effects of testosterone by employing a method called Mendelian randomization for a sample of 306,248 adults living from the U.K., stored in the U.K. Biobank. They searched for causal links between testosterone and socioeconomic position, like employment status, income, educational qualifications, and the level of deprivation in one's neighborhood, in addition to testosterone's effect on BMI, risk-taking behavior, health, and self-reported health. "There's a widespread belief that a person's testosterone can affect where they end up in life," said Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology Amanda Hughes of Bristol Medical School's PHS, in an embargoed release shared with IE. "Our results suggest that, despite a lot of mythology surrounding testosterone, its social implications may have been over-stated."

The research team began by identifying genetic variants connected to higher testosterone levels, and then evaluated the ways these variants showed relations to outcomes. Since a genetic code is selected before you're born, it remains almost totally the same throughout one's life (except for a few, tragic exceptions, like radiation exposure and cancer). This substantially reduced the chances of variants being altered by health, socioeconomic scenarios, and other environmental features one encounters in a lifetime. Because of this firm variable, any associated outcome observed that the scientists linked to testosterone would highlight a very strong influence of testosterone on a person's ultimate outcome in life.

The role of testosterone in life outcome is basically nil

In the past, studies attempting to link men with high testosterone levels with common goals in society like a higher household income, better neighborhood conditions, the likelihood of graduating college and landing a skilled or coveted job reported a positive correlation. Such salad-day studies also linked higher testosterone levels in women to lower income, living in a less well-off neighborhood, and lower chances of graduating college. The earlier studies also linked higher testosterone in men with better health, with the opposite effect in women, and a greater chance of risky behavior in men.

In stark contrast, the new study found almost no evidence that linked genetic variants connected to testosterone levels to any outcome, for men or women. The researchers thus concluded that there is little evidence to meaningfully (or scientifically) connect testosterone levels to health, socioeconomic position, or risk-taking behavior, for both women and men. "Higher testosterone in men has previously been linked to various kinds of social success," said Hughes. "A study of male executives found that testosterone was higher for those who had more subordinates. A study of male financial traders found that higher testosterone correlated to greater daily profits," in addition to higher education, self-employment, and entrepreneurship. But while testosterone is linked with potentially making someone more assertive or prone to risk-taking, "there are other explanations."

"For example, a link between higher testosterone and success might simply reflect an influence of good health on both," explained Hughes, in the embargoed release. "Alternatively, socioeconomic circumstances could affect testosterone levels. A person's perception of their own success could influence testosterone: in studies of sports matches, testosterone has been found to rise in the winner compared to the loser." In other words, higher testosterone is often a consequence of success, which in turn is caused by something else. After years of trendy takes and misleading hit pieces, it seems we are coming to a place, based on empirical evidence, where we can finally say that the role of testosterone in life outcome is far less important than many of us were led to believe.


Correction: An earlier version of this article's title tied testosterone levels to Olympic competition. This has been changed to more accurately reflect the focus of the study on life outcome in general, which was published in the journal Science Advances.

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