Testosterone-Aggression Link: How Shame Proneness Affects Responses to Social Exclusion

Summary: Social exclusion, an experience that can pose threats to an individual’s status and dominance, can lead to various behavioral responses potentially mediated by changes in testosterone levels.

This study found that those with low levels of shame proneness showed heightened aggression when experiencing a rise in testosterone post-exclusion, whereas those with decreased testosterone demonstrated lower aggression. In contrast, those with high shame proneness did not show any meaningful changes in aggressive behavior regardless of testosterone fluctuations.

The findings suggest that our reactions to social exclusion are a complex interplay of hormonal changes and personal dispositions, like shame proneness.

Key Facts:

  1. Social exclusion can lead to varying testosterone responses, which are believed to regulate dominance and status-seeking behaviors.
  2. For individuals with low shame proneness, a rise in testosterone post-exclusion led to increased aggression, while a drop resulted in reduced aggression.
  3. Those with high shame proneness did not show marked changes in aggression, irrespective of testosterone levels after exclusion.

Source: Neuroscience News

Social exclusion can be a deeply painful experience. From schoolyard isolation to the silent treatment in adult relationships, the pain of being left out transcends age. Underpinning these feelings may be the human drive to form and maintain social bonds—a survival strategy shared with other species.

Given the physical and psychological costs of social isolation, our biology often reacts strongly to such events. A key player in this response is testosterone, a hormone deeply connected to dominance and status-seeking behaviors.

This shows an angry man.
Therefore, it’s crucial to note that the testosterone-aggression link is influenced by various factors, including individual personality traits. Credit: Neuroscience News

But how does it influence our reactions to exclusion, and does our disposition towards feeling shame change the game?

The Background: Understanding Social Exclusion

Humans have evolved to value their social connections, primarily because these relationships provide protection, resources, and reproductive opportunities. When excluded from social groups, not only does the individual face potential resource scarcity, but they also grapple with severe psychological wounds. Their self-esteem, sense of belonging, and perceived control are threatened.

In essence, being excluded can be compared to losing a competition. The resulting feelings aren’t just emotional; they are also biological. Testosterone, a steroid hormone, rises among competition winners, perhaps pushing them to maintain their elevated status.

Losers, however, see a drop, potentially prompting behaviors like withdrawal to avoid further loss of status. In the realm of social interaction, being included can be viewed as a win, while exclusion can be seen as a loss. But does this biological response predict aggressive behavior?

The Testosterone Connection

Testosterone is notoriously linked to aggression, but the relationship isn’t straightforward. It appears to function within a framework that responds to threats to status and dominance. When our position in a social hierarchy is challenged, testosterone levels fluctuate.

These rapid shifts, influenced by evolutionary pressures, might promote behaviors that defend one’s status. This means that an increase in testosterone might push an individual to act aggressively or dominantly after a social win, while a decrease could prompt withdrawal behaviors following a loss.

Yet, existing research paints a mixed picture. Some studies have shown a rise in testosterone after being included and a drop following exclusion, aligning with the idea of winners and losers.

However, others have found no change or even opposite effects. Therefore, it’s crucial to note that the testosterone-aggression link is influenced by various factors, including individual personality traits.

Enter Shame Proneness

Among these personal traits, an individual’s tendency towards shame—a deep-rooted emotion that results from perceived social or moral transgressions—stands out.

Someone with high shame proneness often sees these transgressions as reflective of a fundamental flaw in their character. Historically, shame has been viewed as a disruptive emotion, leading to avoidance and withdrawal to restore a threatened sense of self.

Conversely, some studies have found that individuals prone to shame can externalize their feelings, leading to anger and aggression directed at others. The key lies in whether this shame is internalized (blame directed inwards) or externalized (blame directed outwards). So, how does this complex emotion interact with testosterone in the context of social exclusion?

The Study: Shame, Testosterone, and Aggression

Recent research took a closer look at the testosterone-aggression relationship post-exclusion, specifically considering the role of shame proneness. The study involved 167 men who were randomly assigned to experience social inclusion or exclusion through a virtual ball-tossing game, Cyberball. Following the game, their aggressive behaviors were observed, and testosterone levels were measured before and after.

The findings were illuminating. For those with low shame proneness, an increase in testosterone after exclusion predicted higher aggression, whereas a decrease predicted lower aggression.

In essence, their testosterone levels reflected their perceived “win” or “loss” status. However, for individuals with high shame proneness, the aggression levels remained unchanged irrespective of testosterone fluctuations.

This suggests that while testosterone does influence behavior after social exclusion, it does so most significantly for those with low shame proneness. For those prone to shame, the internal emotional turmoil might be so overwhelming that it overrides any hormonal influence on aggression.

Conclusion: A Multifaceted Approach to Understanding Behavior

The study underlines the importance of considering multiple factors—both biological and psychological—when trying to understand human behavior. Social exclusion doesn’t elicit a one-size-fits-all reaction. Our hormonal responses and personal dispositions like shame proneness intertwine to produce complex reactions.

As we move forward, such research not only offers deeper insights into the human psyche but also paves the way for tailored interventions. Recognizing the interplay between hormones and personality can help develop nuanced strategies to address the impacts of social exclusion, ensuring that no one is left behind.

About this neuroscience, aggression, and social psychology research news

Author: Neuroscience News Communications
Source: Neuroscience News
Contact: Neuroscience News Communications – Neuroscience News
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Excluded and ashamed: Shame proneness interacts with social exclusion and testosterone reactivity to predict behavioral aggression” by Lindsay Bochon et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology


Excluded and ashamed: Shame proneness interacts with social exclusion and testosterone reactivity to predict behavioral aggression

Exclusion from social relationships is a painful experience that may threaten an individual’s status and dominance. The steroid hormone testosterone, which fluctuates rapidly in response to such threats, may be implicated in subsequent behavioral action (e.g., aggressive or prosocial responses) that aims to protect or enhance one’s status after exclusion.

Past research, however, indicates that the link between acute changes in testosterone and behavior depend on context-relevant individual dispositions. In the context of social exclusion, an individual’s level of shame proneness—characterized by a tendency to experience shame and to react submissively—is theoretically relevant to the testosterone-induced aggression relationship but has yet to be examined empirically.

Here, men (n = 167) were randomly assigned to be socially included or excluded in the virtual ball-tossing game, Cyberball, after which aggressive behavior was examined using the Point Subtraction Aggression Paradigm (PSAP). Testosterone reactivity was measured via salivary hormone samples collected pre- and post-game. Moderated multiple regression analyses were run to examine the extent to which testosterone reactivity and shame proneness moderated the effect of Cyberball condition on aggression.

Results revealed a significant two-way interaction between Cyberball condition and testosterone reactivity, as well as a three-way interaction including shame proneness.

For individuals low in shame proneness, exclusion was associated with higher post-cyberball aggression among those who experienced a rise in testosterone but was associated with lower post-cyberball aggression among those who experienced a decrease in testosterone.

For individuals high in shame proneness, however, exclusion did not meaningfully affect aggressive responses, regardless of whether they experienced an increase or decrease in testosterone.

These findings extend our understanding of the moderating roles of context and disposition on the neuroendocrinology of aggression in social interaction.

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