testosterone impact on politics
Illustration: Sho Hanafusa

Does Testosterone Affect Your Politics?

The far right seized upon a study that said administering T could cause a “red shift” in Democrats. Reality isn't so simple.

Early last year Rana Sulaiman Alogaily, then a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University, published her doctoral dissertation—a wide-ranging series of Essays in Behavioral Economics and Neuroeconomics. One explored “vaccine hesitancy,” another considered the “neurophysiologic predictors of mood in the elderly”. But a particular essay caught people’s eyes beyond the tiny circles that usually read niche research by early-career academics: Testosterone Administration Induces A Red Shift in Democrats.    


The text recounts a 2011 experiment: Researchers tested 136 healthy young men’s testosterone levels, asked them about their political party affiliations, then gave them either a placebo or ten grams of AndroGel one percent, a high-end dose of a common form of testosterone often used in hormone replacement therapies. The next day, they tested the men’s T levels and asked them about politics again. Their baseline measurements found that staunch self-identified Democrats had lower T than anyone else in their sample pool. And after dosing the guys, they found that men who’d previously expressed weak affinity for the party felt even less connected to it—and warmer towards Republicans. (They observed no change in firm Democrats’ or any Republicans’ stated positions.) 

Alogaily and the paper’s co-authors argued that this is “evidence that neuro-active hormones affect political preferences”. And perhaps it implies, they added, that “political advertising depicting emotional themes that raise T could influence swing voters and perhaps elections.” 

Given how many people twist this generally reasonable premise into sinister knots, the concept is worth grappling with.

Several experts on testosterone who weren’t involved in this study told VICE it’s too weak to base meaningful conclusions on. The sample was small and narrow. The experiment was brief. And the potential confounding variables were numerous. Paul Zak, Alogaily’s Ph.D. advisor and the paper’s designated corresponding author, didn’t reply to a request for comment. Neither did Alogaily. But the text of the study acknowledges its limitations openly. It also offers alternative explanations for the results of the experiment, such as the possibility that weak Democratic party supporters secretly preferred the GOP to begin with, and rather than altering their politics, T just made them more honest about their views.


Of course, none of that has stopped the far right from jumping on the paper. In recent years, many in this world have become obsessed with the idea that conservative guys are jacked, masculine, high-T GigaChads while liberals are weak, emasculated, low-T Soy Boys. That progressive men are literally sick—victims of a hormonal pathology. That addressing this supposedly widespread hormonal deficit will halt the world’s alleged liberal degradation. These testosterone thumpers have repackaged and exaggerated the study, with a credulity born of zealotry, into articles with shitposty titles like “Trust The Science: Study Links Left-Wing Politics to Lower Testosterone,” casting it as hard proof of their hormonal theories of healthy politics. 

The far right’s testosterone hot takes are, unsurprisingly, utter nonsense. “I treat thousands of men for low testosterone every year in Los Angeles,” says Jesse Mills, a urologist with expertise in T-related health issues and director of the Men’s Clinic at UCLA. If boosting men’s testosterone levels did shift their politics towards the right, he adds, “the red wave Republicans were hoping for would have crashed on the shores of Malibu. But it didn’t.” 

Between its methodological weakness and apparent appeal in the world of far-right gender panic and pseudoscience, it’s tempting to write this paper off as the academic equivalent of outrage clickbait. But the premise of the experiment isn’t actually farfetched. There’s a small but growing body of research on how our biology (and changes in it) can affect our politics. And we know testosterone plays a notable role in shaping our overall moods and behaviors. Might it not also influence our political behaviors to some degree? Given how many people twist this generally reasonable premise into sinister knots, the concept is worth grappling with. So rather than dissect one anemic and overhyped study on the subject, VICE decided to dig into all we know about how T might affect people’s politics. 


Spoilers: The hormone almost certainly doesn’t cause a reliable “red shift”. And any effects it does have are likely weak, contextual, and easily mitigated.

The Simple Story of Testosterone and Politics

Humans drew a connection between testosterone and masculinity long before we knew what hormones were, by observing the effects of injuries like a horse kick to the testicles—where testosterone is produced—and procedures like castration. Testosterone plays a major role in the development of male sex traits during puberty, so without it, people don’t develop body and facial hair, a deep voice, or a conventional male frame and muscle-and-fat distribution. And when people with testes lose most or all of their testosterone, they often lose energy, stamina, muscle and bone strength, libido, and a degree of competitiveness. In other words, they lose their virility. Hence, when researchers first identified testosterone (as part of a larger project to identify and define the essence of masculinity), they called it the “male sex hormone”. 

As we learned how to manipulate and dose people with T, we learned more about its behavioral effects. Experiments seemed to show that reducing T levels increased empathy, whereas increasing T levels seemed to increase appetites for risk, novelty, and strenuous activity—while decreasing sensitivity to stress and anxiety. “There was a fun study years ago that looked at floor traders,” Mills recalls. Researchers found they could “predict how risk-taking they’d be based on their T levels, and traders with higher T levels made bigger-risk investments”.


Modern American politics “have always been ‘gendered’”, says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and expert on the intersection of politics and ideas of masculinity. Party values and priorities have shifted over time and vary between different intra-party factions, but most Republicans have traditionally painted themselves as advocates of militarism, individual freedom, and competition. Republican men stereotypically try to project their party’s ostensible core values via explicit, aggressive macho-man posturing. On the other hand, Kimmel explains, commentators often characterize Democrats, who’ve traditionally branded themselves as the party of equality and social safety nets, as competition and risk-averse – as soft and feminine. All that has led to a longstanding seed of obsession with testosterone in certain GOP circles, where it’s used as a concrete metric of and justification for their supposedly innate and healthy masculine-conservative values.

“Can you paint the stereotypical behavioral effects of testosterone into a picture of you being more likely affiliated with one party or another? Sure,” acknowledges Justin Houman, a urologist who treats men with clinically low testosterone levels. “But it is a stretch.” 


Like many other worrisome latent trends within American politics, the 2016 presidential election season turbocharged the depth, salience, and visibility of popular connections between T, masculinity, and conservatism. As he leveraged American misogyny by flinging gender-based attacks at Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, Donald Trump bolstered his masculine bona fides by going on The Dr. Oz Show and smirking as the eponymous host rattled off and praised the T levels recorded in candidate Trump’s medical records. A doctor ran ads suggesting men thinking of voting for Clinton might be suffering from low T and offering to test and treat them to uncloud their judgment. And Americans learned a whole new lexicon of testosterone and virility-based insults as the worst elements of the right moved from the digital fringe into the mainstream. 


Associations between T, masculinity, and hard conservatism only grew more pronounced after that. Far-right voices now bash people they don’t like as “low-T”—one congressman even used this term to describe and disregard Trump’s first impeachment. Conspiracy theories about supposed plots to emasculate American men into small-dicked, liberal servility by pumping them full of estrogen and systematically suppressing their testosterone moved from the confines of paranoid outlets like InfoWars and into mainstream public awareness. And last year Tucker Carlson released a full “documentary” about the supposed testosterone crisis in America and its threats to men, promoting pseudoscience like sunning your balls as so-called solutions. 

“The complexities of true science, even political science, do not easily reduce down to one variable.” —Jesse Mills


A couple of studies do suggest that Americans may be experiencing a widespread drop in their average T levels over time. But the ongoing dip they describe is far more modest than people fearmongering about a T crisis make it out to be, and likely due to lifestyle factors like sedentariness and environmental pollutants messing with our bodies. One study’s author suggests that sensitivity of the tests used to measure T levels could account for some of this drift over time, and so could something like the widespread decline in rates of smoking, a habit that may artificially boost T levels. These studies’ authors have also explained that their findings, while worrisome, still need further testing and confirmation. 


In truth, Americans have likely grown irrationally anxious about testosterone thanks to one of the most successful direct-to-consumer medical advertising campaigns of all time: In the mid-2000s, T makers started telling men that if they had nebulous symptoms like low energy or libido, they might be suffering from low T. (Clinically low T is a real medical issue, but it often involves more symptoms than just fatigue and drop in sex drive, and it certainly isn’t diagnosed by those signs alone.) Alongside these ads, a massive pipeline of lifestyle influencers, self-help gurus, health startups, and loosey-goosey doctors emerged to funnel often self-diagnosed men towards cheap and quick T prescriptions that many of them don’t really need. 

The FDA has tried to push back on this marketing, and the rush on T scripts has slowed somewhat. But America’s seemingly unique, existential, and deep-seated cultural fears of a loss of testosterone, virility, and masculinity may have primed some folks to lend credence to talk over the last decade of a supposed T crisis and its effects on people’s politics . 


However, most of these fears—and in fact most popular ideas about the intersection between T and politics—are based on anemic understandings of the effects of what more recent research shows is actually an incredibly complex and malleable hormone. 

The Real Story of Testosterone and Politics 

Some endocrinologists argue that our core understanding of T, as a fundamentally male sex hormone, is inherently flawed. After all, ovaries produce T too—albeit usually at lower levels than testes—and it plays a vital, if less visible, role in female sexual development and general health. Labeling estrogen as a fundamentally female hormone is also suspect, given that that people born with testes produce it too, and men’s overall health depends on a good balance between it and T

Average hormone levels also vary wildly from person to person according to genetics, developmental and environmental factors, and a host of other variables. So a “normal” male or female testosterone level actually describes a broad range. According to experts, it’s more a rule of thumb than a hard-and-fast metric. It’s far easier than many people seem to think to find AFAB people with naturally “male” T profiles or AMAB people with naturally “female” profiles. People’s testosterone levels also swing around wildly throughout the day and move up and down in response to developments in our lives: Men seem to experience notable dips in T while caring for a new child, for example. 


Everyone’s body responds a bit differently to testosterone, thanks to natural variations in the number and sensitivity of hormone receptors, idiosyncratic developmental histories with the hormone, and the effects of natural processes like aging. It’s a threshold molecule as well, not some dimmer switch for virility and masculinity. That’s at least partially why many people with T levels consistently below “normal” don’t report any notable effects on their bodies or behavior. And why many people who take testosterone but don’t have catastrophically low T levels and related health problems don’t see much impact on their health or wellness—beyond placebo effects.  

“Efforts to find a biological cause for political behavior are usually doomed to fail. But that doesn’t mean that people will ever stop trying!” —Michael Kimmel

Recent research also suggests that early findings and common knowledge about testosterone’s role in aggression, competition, and risk-taking don’t hold up to scrutiny. On its own, T can also boost altruism and even interest in cuddling in some situations. And T almost never acts alone. Other biological agents and processes, as well as culture, upbringing, and conscious choice, can modulate its effects. Recent research notably suggests: That people who take big risks in one realm of their lives, like gambling, are often risk averse in another context, like investing their savings. That, compared to men, women in America likely take fewer career risks on average—are less ambitious and assertive—not because of their hormone profiles but because they often face backlash for engaging in what many people still consider stereotypically male behaviors. And that in more gender-egalitarian countries, like Sweden, on average, men and women take on a similar approach to risks and competition. 

So drawing direct lines between natural T levels and any behavior or proclivity is dubious. As are explanations for any change observed in people after they take a dose of T. Pointing back to Alogaily and her colleagues’ paper, Mills noted that a dose of T could have brightened some men’s moods and made them generally “feel warmer to puppies and apple pie as well as Republicans”. 

T’s complexity may explain the squishy ambiguities in the handful of studies on the interplay between the hormone and personal politics. For instance, two studies examined the effects of watching your preferred candidate lose an election on your T levels. They monitored men’s testosterone before and after the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential elections, respectively, and found that John McCain supporters’ T levels dropped after he lost, while Romney supporters’ levels did the opposite after his presidential bid tanked. It’s entirely unclear what factors might account for that difference. 

“Everything is unclear!” Mills says when asked what we do and don’t know about how T might affect people’s politics. To get to the bottom of this question, Houman adds, you’d need to account for so many factors, like people’s individual hormonal and behavioral baselines and all the variables in their lives that might modulate their T levels and responses—not to mention precisely what a given person means when they say, for example, they identify with one party over another. “Age, overall health, sleep, genetics, medications,” he rattles off. “The list goes on.” 

(The incredible complexity of studying hormones’ multi-faceted and malleable effects on our bodies and behaviors may explain why most of the science on the intersections of biology and political views and activities focuses on static factors, like genetics and brain structures.)

None of this means that T has no bearing on our politics. It likely does—but the nature and scale of these effects may vary wildly according to an individual’s context and over time. Given the number of factors that affect our political views and actions, Houman also says he’d expect any testosterone effects to be relatively weak. And the impact of a single dose of T, or environmental factors like political ads that cause a spike in T, are usually short-lived. 

Even if we could nail down one or two clear and reliable, if minor, effects of testosterone on people’s political lives, Mills cautioned against paying them too much heed. “The complexities of true science, even political science, do not easily reduce down to one variable,” he says. 

“Efforts to find a biological cause for political behavior are usually doomed to fail,” Kimmel agrees. “But that doesn’t mean that people will ever stop trying!” The appeal of finding some sort of biological button for swaying people towards our views—or of finding some root pathology behind theirs—is intoxicating, after all. 

Intoxicating, but moronic.