Testosterone and estrogen impact social evaluations and vicarious emotions: A double-blind placebo-controlled study

Emotion. 2016 Jun;16(4):515-23. doi: 10.1037/a0039765. Epub 2016 Jan 11.

Abstract

The abilities to "read" other peoples' intentions and emotions, and to learn from their experiences, are critical to survival. Previous studies have highlighted the role of sex hormones, notably testosterone and estrogen, in these processes. Yet it is unclear how these hormones affect social cognition and emotion using acute hormonal administration. In the present double-blind placebo-controlled study, we administered an acute exogenous dose of testosterone or estrogen to healthy female and male volunteers, respectively, with the aim of investigating the effects of these steroids on social-cognitive and emotional processes. Following hormonal and placebo treatment, participants made (a) facial dominance judgments, (b) mental state inferences (Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test), and (c) learned aversive associations through watching others' emotional responses (observational fear learning [OFL]). Our results showed that testosterone administration to females enhanced ratings of facial dominance but diminished their accuracy in inferring mental states. In men, estrogen administration resulted in an increase in emotional (vicarious) reactivity when watching a distressed other during the OFL task. Taken together, these results suggest that sex hormones affect social-cognitive and emotional functions at several levels, linking our results to neuropsychiatric disorders in which these functions are impaired. (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Estrogens / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Behavior*
  • Testosterone / metabolism*
  • Young Adult

Substances

  • Estrogens
  • Testosterone