Preliminary evidence that acute stress moderates basal testosterone's association with retaliatory behavior

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A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition.Testosterone is theorized to increase retaliation after social provocation. However, empirical evidence in support of these theories is mixed. The present research investigated whether acute stress causally suppresses testosterone's association with retaliation. We also explored sex differences in behavioral responses to acute stress. Thirty-nine participants (51.28% male) were randomly assigned to a high- or low-stress condition. Then participants engaged in 20 one-shot rounds of the ultimatum game, which was used to assess retaliatory behavioral responses to unfair treatment. Participants provided two saliva samples to measure testosterone and cortisol concentrations - one sample before the stress manipulation, and the second after the ultimatum game (20 minutes post-stressor). Results revealed a positive association between basal testosterone and retaliation in the low-stress condition, but not in the high-stress condition. Further, cortisol concentrations increased in the high- compared to the low-stress condition, and these cortisol changes moderated the association between basal testosterone and retaliation. The associations between basal testosterone and retaliation under varying levels of stress were similar in men and women. However, there was a sex difference in behavioral responses to the stress manipulation that was independent of testosterone. In women, the high-stress condition reduced retaliation compared to the low-stress condition, whereas in men the opposite pattern emerged. Collectively, this study (i) provides preliminary evidence that experimentally manipulated stress blocks basal testosterone's association with retaliation, and (ii) reveals a sex difference in retaliation under varying levels of stress. Discussion focuses on mechanisms, limitations, and the need for follow-up studies with larger sample sizes.HighlightsExamined the role of stress moderating the testosterone-retaliation relationshipUnder conditions of low stress, basal testosterone positively predicted retaliation.Experimentally induced stress blocked the testosterone-retaliation relationship.Stress-induced cortisol reactivity was a likely mechanism of this effect.

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