What can animal research tell us about the link between androgens and social competition in humans?

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A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition.The relationship between androgenic hormones, like testosterone (T), and aggression is extensively studied in human populations. Yet, while this work has illuminated a variety of principals regarding the behavioral and phenotypic effects of T, it is also hindered by inherent limitations of performing research on people. In these instances, animal research can be used to gain further insight into the complex mechanisms by which T influences aggression. Here, we explore recent studies on T and aggression in numerous vertebrate species, although we focus primarily on males and on a New World rodent called the California mouse (Peromyscus californicus). This species is highly territorial and monogamous, resembling the modern human social disposition. We review (i) how baseline and dynamic T levels predict and/or impact aggressive behavior and disposition; (ii) how factors related to social and physical context influence T and aggression; (iii) the reinforcing or “rewarding” aspects of aggressive behavior; and (iv) the function of T on aggression before and during a combative encounter. Included are areas that may need further research. We argue that animal studies investigating these topics fill in gaps to help paint a more complete picture of how androgenic steroids drive the output of aggressive behavior in all animals, including humans.HighlightsThe social and physical contexts for a behavior are critical for understanding the effects of androgen surges on that behavior.Rewarding effects of androgens and aggressive/competitive experiences can impact how such behavior manifests in the future.The temporal pattern of androgen release may illuminate the functional effects of androgens on behavior.There is tremendous plasticity in the functions of transient testosterone surges on behavior.

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