Revisiting the Serotonin–Aggression Relation in Humans: A Meta-Analysis

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The inverse relation between serotonin and human aggression is often portrayed as “reliable,” “strong,” and “well established” despite decades of conflicting reports and widely recognized methodological limitations. In this systematic review and meta-analysis, we evaluate the evidence for and against the serotonin deficiency hypothesis of human aggression across 4 methods of assessing serotonin: (a) cerebrospinal fluid levels of 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (CSF 5-HIAA), (b) acute tryptophan depletion, (c) pharmacological challenge, and (d) endocrine challenge. Results across 175 independent samples and over 6,500 total participants were heterogeneous, but, in aggregate, revealed a small, inverse correlation between serotonin functioning and aggression, anger, and hostility (r = −.12). Pharmacological challenge studies had the largest mean weighted effect size (r = −.21), and CSF 5-HIAA studies had the smallest (r = −.06). Potential methodological and demographic moderators largely failed to account for variability in study outcomes. Notable exceptions included year of publication (effect sizes tended to diminish with time) and self- versus other-reported aggression (other-reported aggression was positively correlated to serotonin functioning). We discuss 4 possible explanations for the pattern of findings: unreliable measures, ambient correlational noise, an unidentified higher order interaction, and a selective serotonergic effect. Finally, we provide 4 recommendations for bringing much needed clarity to this important area of research: acknowledge contradictory findings and avoid selective reporting practices; focus on improving the reliability and validity of serotonin and aggression measures; test for interactions involving personality and/or environmental moderators; and revise the serotonin deficiency hypothesis to account for serotonin’s functional complexity.

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