Many earlier studies have suggested a link between testosterone and reduced empathy, the ability to recognize others’ emotions and motivations. Often with small sample sizes however, new research challenges previous suggestions that high testosterone levels leads to less empathy.
In new research, Gideon Nave, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues conducted two randomized controlled studies on 643 healthy men. Each either receiving an application of testosterone gel or a placebo, they were then asked to complete questionnaires and behavioral tasks to measure their cognitive empathy. Tests included being shown a photo of an actor’s eyes and selecting the best emotional state to describe their expression (Lloyd: 2019).
Although the testosterone gel did lead to increases in their levels of the hormone, the researchers found no association between heightened levels of testosterone and abilities to perform on tests for cognitive empathy.
Nave said, "The results are plain....However, it's important to note that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We found that there is no evidence to support this effect of testosterone, but that doesn't rule out any possible effects. From what we know, though, it seems that if testosterone does have an influence, the effect is complex, not linear. Reality is typically not that simple (University of Pennsylvania: 2019)."
Before this work, the strongest evidence linking testosterone exposure and reduced cognitive empathy came from a 2011 study. There, researchers found that increasing levels of testosterone in 16 healthy women reduced their performance on tests requiring them to read emotions, thus leading them to conclude that increased testosterone levels have a negative effect on empathy (ibid.).
Although this new study of course challenges the conclusions made from this previous research, as it was conducted solely on women, and the new study solely on men, any conclusions made by both may not be lacking. Regardless of that however, the researchers have nevertheless said that one would still expect to find consistent differences in empathy if the effects of increased testosterone levels were real, especially as men are exposed to more testosterone in the womb, which would presumably increase the effects of extra administration.
Lloyd, James: Science Focus