Testosterone and aggression, or what Frank's Red Hot Sauce has to do with handgun violence

[This article was originally published in December, 2006]

ResearchBlogging.orgi-9170531fd58af82a50ede6d90c998f9e-klinesmith1.jpgAs parents of a 1516-year-old, Greta and I are very interested in what causes people to behave aggressively. We know a lot about specific causes of aggression -- violent media, testosterone, guns, and personal insults can all lead to aggressive behavior in certain circumstances. But kids and others exposed to one or more of these things don't necessarily become violent. Sometimes it seems that just the presence of his sister in the room can cause Jim to act more aggressively than he would otherwise.

That's one reason we were intrigued by a recent study by Jennifer Klinesmith, Tim Kasser, and Francis t. McAndrew -- it attempts to suss out the combined effects of guns and testosterone on aggression. The other reason is that it involves spiking other people's drinks with Frank's Red Hot Sauce. What could be more fun than that?

Previous studies examining the effect of the hormone testosterone and aggression have had mixed results. While other studies have shown a link between gun handling and aggression Klinesmith's team noticed that no study had explored the link between guns, testosterone, and aggression.

They told 30 male college student volunteers they'd be participating in a study on taste sensitivity and attention to detail. Each participant provided a sample of saliva prior to the study (this would later be used to determine testosterone levels), then spent fifteen minutes performing one of two tasks. Fifteen of the men worked with the game "Mouse Trap"; their task was to write a set of instructions on how to assemble and disassemble it. The other 15 men had the same task, but the object of their description was a pellet gun that was an exact size / weight replica of a Desert Eagle automatic handgun.

After the description task, participants provided another saliva sample, and then were given a cup filled with 85 grams (about 1/3 cup) of water and one drop of Frank's Red Hot Sauce. This, they were told, was the "taste sensitivity" portion of the study. They were asked to rate the taste of the sample, which (they were told) had been prepared by the previous research participant. Next, they were given a clean glass filled with 85 grams of water, and a bottle of Frank's Red Hot Sauce, which they were told to use to prepare a sample for the next participant.

Of course, the real purpose of the study was to see if handling the weapon would increase testosterone levels, and if participants were more aggressive after handling the weapon compared to the child's game. Here are the results:


The results are dramatic: Testosterone levels increased significantly after handling the gun, while they didn't increase at all after a similar task with the game. And the gun-handlers put more than three times as much hot sauce in the water as the game players: over 13 grams, in just an 85-gram container of water, creating a solution that was over 15 percent hot sauce.

Klinesmith's team argues that this study shows that simply handling a gun causes men to be more aggressive. Further analysis of the data shows that the aggression is mediated by testosterone levels. In other words, if the effect of testosterone levels is removed from the hot sauce aggression data, then the correlation between weapon-handling and aggression is significantly lower. This suggests that the increased testosterone levels are a key to increased aggression.

The team notes that there are some important limitations to the study. Participants were told they were acting anonymously, and there was no fear of retribution. Perhaps if they had to confront their "victims," their behavior would have been different. Also, it's possible that frequent gun-handlers wouldn't show the same increased aggression after handling a gun -- the high testosterone levels and aggression might have been more a result of the novelty of the situation than of the particular impact of a weapon.

Needless to say, if you have a gun in the house, you'd better keep your hot sauce locked up! Or is it the other way around?

Jennifer Klinesmith, Tim Kasser, Francis T. McAndrew (2006). Guns, Testosterone, and Aggression: An Experimental Test of a Mediational Hypothesis Psychological Science, 17 (7), 568-571 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01745.x

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Wow! What a weird/cool/interesting study!

Out of curiosity, what is reason for using a pellet gun that looks like a real gun instead of just using a real gun?

By Sally LeRoy (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

Out of curiosity, what is reason for using a pellet gun that looks like a real gun instead of just using a real gun?

Umm.... you're kidding, right? Please tell me this isn't a serious question.

#3: It was a serious question.

By Sally LeRoy (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

One drop of an ordinary-looking hot sauce in 1/3rd cup of water?

Whatta buncha wimps!

Did they check the survey participants to see who was an aficionado of southwestern/Cajun/etc food, as opposed to that tapioca oatmeal chowder y'all damn Yankees live on? Some of us don't know how to apply hot sauce one drop at a time!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

Sally LeRoy #4:
Wow. Just... wow.

LOLWUT, a real pistol is not contagious. I believe that Sally LeRoy's question deserves a serous answer. It would be quite easy to make a real pistol incapable of being fired, plus even the most daffy researcher could probably have been trusted not to hand the students a loaded gun. I can think of several issues that use of a pellet gun raises. For example, would the level of testosterone have been different if the gun had been real? Anyone even slightly familiar with firearms would recognize that a pellet gun is not a "real" gun. So that makes the issue of familiarity with firearms even more relevant to understanding the results.

LOLWUT: Good point.

Anybody else want to weigh in? My thinking is that using a fake gun just adds another variable. I've been plinking at pop cans with pellet guns as longs as I can remember (I'd guess starting around age 5), so to me pellet guns aren't that different than board games in terms of excitement levels they generate.

Real guns generate a much better response for me. To me it is just common sense: real guns make loud noises and have lots of destructive power; pellet guns do not. I would suspect that anyone that's been around firearms at all would have a much stronger reaction to a real Desert Eagle.

I'd be interested to see if the affect of real guns would be significant without the testosterone even though pellet guns weren't.

By Sally LeRoy (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

#10, #12: If, as stated in the post, the pellet gun was an exact size/weight replica of the real thing, then how could it introduce another variable? Even if we assume that the people in the study could tell the difference between the pellet gun and the real thing, why does it matter that they might have a stronger reaction to a real gun?

Giving people who are basically strangers off the street a real gun, even though it would obviously be loaded, is insane. It's also not necessary.

It was probably cheaper to buy pellet guns. And the paperwork for buying a gun for a study like this would probably be tedious. Occam's Razor...

#3, 10, 11, 12, 13: Your knee-jerk fear of handling a real gun is apparent, especially in #3 and #10's implication that it is inherently dangerous to do so. No gun is dangerous without ammunition, except that you might pinch your finger when [dis]assembling it. A real gun, even to a naive subject, is obviously not a pellet gun when it's taken apart. So, #13, we can reasonably expect a greater reaction to a real gun, making it another variable.

#11: FWIW I've been firing both pellet and powder guns for nearly 60 years and served 21 years in the military. My only fight was when I was physically attacked at age 13, and most likely it was radical vegetarians who firebombed two animal researchers recently at UCSC in California. Violent behavior is distressingly widespread.

LOLWUT, I can only conclude from what you say that you are not familiar with handguns. Your reaction to the mere suggestion of using a real pistol indicates to me that your reaction in a study of this type would not be the same as someone who was familiar with handguns. Thus I think it is obvious that the issue of whether the people in the study were familiar with firearms is relevant, as is the question of why a fake firearm was used. If one were to be strict in this case, which scientists often are, it could be argued that the study shows no effect from handling a firearm because no firearm was present. The only way you could argue otherwise is to assume that the participants were so unfamiliar with firearms that they could not tell the difference. Thus one could also argue that the study says nothing about the effect of the presence of a handgun around people who are familiar with handguns. Now, based on the assumption that the participants were not familiar with handguns, all you can conclude is that aggressive tendencies were enhanced when people unfamiliar with firearms were given fake pistols.

All I am saying is that we could tell more about the implications of this study if we knew a little more about it.

i am using "handgun" and "firearm" interchangeably because I think among those who are familiar with firearms, they are the same thing. While one might argue that a pellet gun is pistol, no one familiar with firearms would likely call a pellet gun of any type a "pistol" without the qualifier "pellet."

This is an interesting study, but I'd like to see it expanded. Since people's feelings are somewhat contagious, based on smell and other ways of "reading" each other's emotional state, could the state of the experimenter introduce a variable?

For example, if one test was done with an experimenter who disapproved of guns, another was done by an experimenter who used them every other weekend for United States Practical Shooting Association speed-and-accuracy contests on paper and steel targets, and the last experimenter who used them only for fall hunting, could the experimenter's feelings toward guns influence the results?

A pellet gun costs far less than a real firearm, that's one reason to use it in an experiment. The other might be department regulations.

I'd agree with the one who said anybody who is familiar with real firearms would not get the same emotional reaction to a pellet gun. Size and weight has nothing to do with it for a person familiar with firearms. They can tell the difference immediately. Only the naive to firearms person would think they were equivalent in emotional response.

What would be really interesting is to rerun this experiment with different groups of subjects. One group would be comfortable with firearms and the second group would be naive.

Giving subjects a real gun isn't insane in my opinion. As long as you removed the barrel it could never fire. Or you could remove the firing pin, and there are lots of other way to render it unable to fire. There are lots of guns around that are unable to fire for one reason or another. The experimenter could pick up such a gun at less cost than buying a pellet gun.

I can think of several reasons off the top of my head for why they didn't use a real gun:

1. Guns are prohibited on many college campuses.
2. Real guns are more expensive than pellet guns.
3. Their IRB may have raised an issue with letting undergraduate students handle a real gun, even if it was perfectly safe.

Besides, if a "weak" (pellet) gun can raise testosterone levels then one would expect a "strong" (real) gun almost certainly raise them as well. If subjects in the study knew it was fake, and it still raised their testosterone levels, then that's a really interesting result.

Besides, if a "weak" (pellet) gun can raise testosterone levels then one would expect a "strong" (real) gun almost certainly raise them as well. If subjects in the study knew it was fake, and it still raised their testosterone levels, then that's a really interesting result.

I wouldn't be all that surprised. If one group played Mousetrap and one group played Half-Life 2 with guns that only existed on a screen you'd probably see the same thing.

It would be more interesting to compare two groups. One who was familiar with guns and were used to handling guns and one who were not. While it's just a hypothesis I suspect that testosterone levels rise significantly for those who've only primarily encountered firearms in silly Hollywood videos and who haven't shot them and handled them. i.e. the romance wearing off.

Sort of the same effect as when you touch the hand of a beautiful girl you'd like to date but haven't versus when you touch her hand after dating her for six months. There may still be an effect but it will be a different one.

My guess is that the implications of studies like this will be pushed will beyond what the evidence warrants.

Some of us drink Frank's straight, and might have beefed up the sample preparation as a courtesy.

I wonder if the bump in testosterone isn't more related to how interesting the task/object is? The kids game "mouse trap" is probably something boringly familiar, and, since it is designed to be assembled by kids, is not very challenging to write about. A pellet gun may be something these volunteers had never taken apart, and their curiosity may have been aroused to find out how it works. Being another kids toy, it is a weak totem of masculine aggression. I suspect the authors would have achieved more provocative results had they compared assembly of a pellet gun to that of an actual gun.

"I suspect the authors would have achieved more provocative results had they compared assembly of a pellet gun to that of an actual gun."

I think this would be an interesting study, assuming of course that (as someone noted earlier) they also control for people who have experience handling guns and those who don't - people like LOLWUT that believe an unloaded pistol is inherently dangerous are going to have a different reaction than those who are experienced with the use of a weapon. I certainly don't get a 'high' from it every time I touch a pistol.

By Thomas M. (not verified) on 16 Aug 2008 #permalink

I think this would be an interesting study, assuming of course that (as someone noted earlier) they also control for people who have experience handling guns and those who don't

That's of course only one of many things they need to control for. I realize that the scale of experiments needs to be kept reaonable, but this one seems to be picking on guns a bit much. I would be interested in a middle-way group that, say, assembled a model tank or battleship - the kind of thing that functions to kill people, but cannot be immediately used by the builder. Further, I don't see any reason to believe that there's anything special about handling the gun that raises testosterone levels. It may well be that any weapon (or piece of sports equipement, for that matter) has the same effect, but testing on those isn't politically sexy. Finally, I would think that to a person experienced handling guns, even assembling a real gun wouldn't get much of a rise out of it. Point being that it's probably the novelty as much as anything that's operative here.

While these studies are well and good, from what you've told us of it, it does nothing to demonstrate the underlying REASON for this behavior. I also don't know how familiar these people are with guns, as you have addressed. I would also assume (being all college students) that they are probably fairly young (18-22) and this could also be a factor. It would also be neat if we were able to selectively lower the subject's testosterone levels, but this might prove difficult to do reversibly with current medical technology. We could also compare frequent gun handlers (hunters, police, etc.) to those inexperienced with them (most college students).

As someone who owns many guns and carries one daily, I am left to wonder about the background of these test subjects and why simply handling a gun provokes such a response? And might other objects do the same? Guys like tinkering with cars, too, and a man with an air hammer in his hand is usually a pretty happy guy. Is it what the gun represents, or simply is it a cool mechanical widget? And are they gun novices? I know of few people who are seriously into firearms who would see them as tools of aggression. The most safety conscious people you'll ever meet are at a shooting range! (Which is why you don't hear of shootings or accidents at them very much.)

So while I applaud any and every effort to get to the root causes of aggressive / violent behavior, I caution against bias and demonizing the object when other variables may well apply.

By DJStuCrew (not verified) on 21 Aug 2008 #permalink

As a pacifist who has used and uses guns I sit on both sides of this fence. :-)

If we remove the aggression / guns are evil aspect for a moment at just consider them as "sharp power tools". Tools that if handled correctly perform amazing feats way beyond what you can do unaided.

Conversely, they are tools if handled incorrectly (or maliciously) cause instant death or grave injury.

ie. If one removed the "Gun" aspect and redid the experiment with "sharp power tools" eg. chain saw, band saw etc, would one achieve the same effect?

ie. My hypothesis is testosterone is the bodies natural response to handling cold harsh dangerous reality.

ie. The only thing this experiment has shown (which is quite well known already) Aggression is the minds natural response to testosterone.

By John Carter (not verified) on 25 Aug 2008 #permalink

Is it possible that their increased testosterone level increased their reaction to the sauce they had to drink? Maybe they felt it hotter than the guys who drank it while their testosterone was still low. This way, maybe they put in more sauce as some kind of revenge.

The only thing I see wrong with this study were the subjects, how are the selected? Are gun owners and former or current servicemen excluded/included or not documented. I can see the physiological responses being different between people who have never handled a weapon and those who have had the proper training and experience with a weapon. The "item" is viewed as potentially harmful and the body response accordingly. Testosterone levels are probably higher in any fight or flight situation, and aggression in all living things is higher when they perceive a threat.

The Dr Max Powers testoterone booster is great - ofcourse it improves sex drive [like large amounts of testosterone would if you take a larger amount], since it is the real deal.

I would definately recommend this product to men whose levels of testosterone were diminishing, as with age.
I Ordered the Dr. Max Test Boost product as supplement to boost my energy levels and such. I took one pill each morning with a meal.

By Mark Paulis (not verified) on 20 Oct 2009 #permalink