Good news for beta males! Testosterone levels do NOT drive success in men and are ‘much less important than previously claimed’, study finds

  • High testosterone has previously been linked to various kinds of social success
  • But scientists now claim that the sex hormone isn’t the cause of these successes
  • High testosterone levels could be a result of success – not the other way around

Big shot city bankers and aggressive market traders can’t attribute their success to having higher levels of testosterone, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Bristol claim it’s a myth that testosterone levels drive success in life, contradicting previous assumptions. 

In a genetic analysis, the experts found little evidence that testosterone influences success for men or even women, who produce small amounts of testosterone in the ovaries. 

Despite the social myths surrounding testosterone, it could be much less important to life success than previously thought, they say. 

In fact, high testosterone could be a result of success, rather than the other way around, which could explain previous studies that linked high levels of the hormone with a successful life. 

Higher testosterone in men has previously been linked to various kinds of social success – but the new study claims the hormone itself isn’t the driver (stock image)

WHAT IS TESTOSTERONE?  

Testosterone is the male sex hormone and is mostly made in the testicles, but also in adrenal glands, which are near the kidneys.

It causes the voice to deepen, body hair to grow and the genitals to become larger during puberty.

As well as affecting sex drive and sperm production, it also plays a role in developing strong bones and muscles, and how the body distributes fat.

Women also create small amounts of the hormone in the ovaries and adrenal glands, and it affects their fertility and bones and muscles. 

‘There’s a widespread belief that a person’s testosterone can affect where they end up in life,’ said study author Dr Amanda Hughes at University of Bristol Medical School. 

‘Our results suggest that, despite a lot of mythology surrounding testosterone, its social implications may have been over-stated.’ 

Testosterone is the male sex hormone and is mostly made in the testicles, but also in adrenal glands, which are near the kidneys. 

It’s already known that in men, testosterone is linked with socioeconomic position, such as income or educational qualifications. 

Previous studies have found that men with more testosterone are in more successful positions than their peers. 

‘A study of male executives found that testosterone was higher for those who had more subordinates,’ said Dr Hughes. 

‘A study of male financial traders found that higher testosterone correlated with greater daily profits. 

‘Other studies have reported that testosterone is higher for more highly educated men, and among self-employed men, suggesting a link with entrepreneurship.’

Such research has supported the widespread idea that testosterone can influence success by affecting behaviour – for example, it could make a banker or trader more aggressive. 

But success may come before testosterone levels rise, not after, according to Dr Hughes. 

‘Rather than testosterone influencing a person’s socioeconomic position, it could be that having a more advantaged socioeconomic position raises your testosterone,’ she says in a piece for the Conversation. 

3D illustration of a testosterone molecule. Testosterone is the male sex hormone and is mostly made in the testicles, but also in adrenal glands, which are near the kidneys

MEN WITH HIGH TESTOSTERONE ‘ARE MORE SELFISH’ 

Having high levels of testosterone can make men less generous and more likely to exhibit selfish behaviours, a study found. 

Psychologists from China and Switzerland measured the brain activity of men while they completed a task involving deciding between generous and selfish options. 

Men who had been given additional testosterone three hours before completing the task tended to select the more selfish options, they found.

Testosterone also dampened activity in a region of the brain known to be involved in consideration of other people’s welfare.

Read more: Men with high testosterone are less generous 

But there may be other explanations. Higher testosterone in men is linked to good health – and good health may help people succeed in their careers. 

‘A link in men between testosterone and socioeconomic position could therefore simply reflect an impact of health on both,’ Dr Hughes said. 

‘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.’       

For their study, Dr Hughes and her team applied an approach called Mendelian randomisation in a sample of 306,248 UK adults from UK Biobank.

Mendelian randomisation is an epidemiological technique that uses differences in genetics to distinguish a simple correlation from causation (one factor directly causing another).

The team explored testosterone’s influence on socioeconomic position, including income, employment status, neighbourhood-level deprivation and educational qualifications.

They also looked at testosterone’s influence on health, including self-rated health and body mass index (BMI) measurements, and on risk-taking behaviour.

First, the team identified genetic variants linked to higher testosterone levels and then investigated how these variants were related to the outcomes. 

A person’s genetic code is determined before birth, and generally does not change during their lifetime (there are rare exceptions, such as changes that occur with cancer).

This makes it very unlikely that genetic variants are affected by socioeconomic circumstances, health or other environmental factors during a person’s lifetime.

Consequently, any link between a particular outcome (like a high-paying job) with genetic variants linked to testosterone would strongly suggest an influence of testosterone on that outcome.

Similar to previous studies, the research found men with higher testosterone had higher household income, lived in less deprived areas and were more likely to have a university degree and a skilled job. 

Interestingly, in women, higher testosterone was linked to lower socioeconomic position, including lower household income, living in a more deprived area and lower chance of having a university degree. 

Consistent with previous evidence, higher testosterone was linked with better health for men and poorer health for women, and greater risk-taking behaviour for men.

But there was little evidence that the testosterone-related genetic variants were linked with any outcome for men or women. 

The team concluded that there is little evidence that testosterone meaningfully affected socioeconomic position, health or risk-taking in men or women.  

Results for women were less precise than results for men, so the influence of testosterone in women could be studied in more detail in the future using larger samples. 

The findings have been published in Science Advances. 

TESTOSTERONE EXPLAINED

Testosterone is the male sex hormone and is mostly made in the testicles, but also in adrenal glands, which are near the kidneys.

It causes the voice to deepen, body hair to grow and the genitals to become larger during puberty.

As well as affecting sex drive and sperm production, it also plays a role in developing strong bones and muscles, and how the body distributes fat.

Women also create small amounts of the hormone in the ovaries and adrenal glands, and it affects their fertility and bones and muscles.

Testosterone levels which are too high or too low can cause various problems.

Low testosterone in men can cause erection problems, low sex drive, infertility, weakened muscles and bones, body fat gain and hair loss.

Too much testosterone, however, can trigger puberty in boys under the age of nine, is linked to aggression, and can increase the risk of prostate problems, including cancer.

Male testosterone levels tend to be highest when he is around 20 years old, and decline naturally with age.

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