Chapter 6: Hormones and Behavior

6.3: Aggressive Behaviors

The possibility for aggressive behavior exists whenever the interests of two or more individuals are in conflict (Nelson, 2006). Conflicts are most likely to arise over limited resources such as territories, food, and mates. A social interaction decides which animal gains access to the contested resource. In many cases, a submissive posture or gesture on the part of one animal avoids the necessity of actual combat over a resource. Animals may also participate in threat displays or ritualized combat in which dominance is determined, but no physical damage is inflicted.

There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that androgenic steroid hormones mediate aggressive behavior across many species. First, seasonal variations in blood plasma concentrations of testosterone coincide with seasonal variations in aggression. For instance, aggressive behavior peaks for male deer in autumn, when they are secreting high levels of testosterone. Second, aggressive behaviors increase at the time of puberty when the testes become active, and blood concentrations of androgens rise. Juvenile deer do not participate in the fighting during the mating season. Third, in any given species, males are generally more aggressive than females. This is certainly true of deer; relative to males, female deer rarely display aggressive behavior, and their rare aggressive acts are qualitatively different from the aggressive behavior of aggressive males. Finally, castration typically reduces aggression in males, and testosterone replacement therapy restores aggression to pre-castration levels. There are some interesting exceptions to these general observations that are outside the scope of this chapter.

As mentioned, males are generally more aggressive than females. Certainly, human males are much more aggressive than females although research in developmental psychology notes that females may engage in relational aggression (e.g., causing harm to social status or relationships) at higher rates than males. Many more men than women are convicted of violent crimes in North America. The sex differences in human aggressiveness appear very early. At every age throughout the school years, many more males than females initiate physical assaults. Almost everyone will acknowledge the existence of this sex difference, but assigning a cause to behavioral sex differences in humans always elicits much debate. It is possible that males are more aggressive than females because androgens promote aggressive behavior, and males have higher blood concentrations of androgens than females. It is possible that males and females differ in their aggressiveness because the brains of males are exposed to androgens prenatally, and the “wiring” of their brains is thus organized in a way that facilitates the expression of aggression. It is also possible that males are encouraged, and females are discouraged by family, peers, or others from acting in an aggressive manner. These three hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, but it is extremely difficult to discriminate among them to account for sex differences in human aggressiveness.


Image of man's face in a show of aggression
Figure 7. Researchers have electrically stimulated particular regions in people’s brains, and these individuals have burst into aggressive, violent behavior, helping demonstrate that such responses are hardwired into us.

What kinds of studies would be necessary to assess these hypotheses? It is usually difficult to separate out the influences of environment and physiology on the development of behavior in humans. For example, males and females differ in their rough-and-tumble play at a very young age, which suggests an early physiological influence on aggression. However, parents interact with their male and female offspring differently; they usually play more roughly with male infants than with females, which suggests that the sex difference in aggressiveness is partially learned. This difference in parental interaction style is evident by the first week of life. Because of these complexities in the factors influencing human behavior, the study of hormonal effects on sex-differentiated behavior has been pursued in nonhuman animals, for which environmental influences can be held relatively constant. Animal models for which sexual differentiation occurs postnatally are often used so that this process can be easily manipulated experimentally.

Again, with the appropriate animal model, we can address the questions posed above: Is the sex difference in aggression due to higher adult blood concentrations of androgens in males or because male brains are organized differently by perinatal hormones? Or does the sex difference in aggression stem from an interaction of early and current blood androgen concentrations? If male mice are castrated prior to their sixth day of life, then treated with testosterone propionate in adulthood, they show low levels of aggression. Similarly, females ovariectomized prior to their sixth day but given androgens in adulthood do not express male-like levels of aggression. Treatment of perinatally gonadectomized males or females with testosterone prior to their sixth day of life and also in adulthood results in a level of aggression similar to that observed in typical male mice. Thus, in mice, the increased aggressiveness in males is organized perinatally by androgens but also requires the presence of androgens after puberty in order to be fully expressed. In other words, aggression in male mice is both organized and activated by androgens. Testosterone exposure in adulthood without prior organization of the brain by steroid hormones does not evoke typical male levels of aggression. Aggressive behavior is both organized and activated by androgens in many species, including rats, hamsters, voles, dogs, and possibly some primate species.

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