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Exogenous testosterone increases sensitivity to moral norms in moral dilemma judgements


Moral dilemma judgements frequently involve decisions where moral norms and the greater good are in conflict. The current preregistered study tested the effect of the steroid hormone testosterone on moral dilemma judgements using a double-blind administration of testosterone or placebo. Counter to predictions, testosterone administration led to increased inaction in moral dilemmas where harmful actions prohibited by moral norms increase overall well-being. Using a mathematical model to disentangle sensitivity to consequences, sensitivity to moral norms and general preference for inaction versus action, analyses further revealed that testosterone administration influenced judgements by increasing sensitivity to moral norms. Exploratory analyses suggested the opposite pattern for endogenous testosterone measured at baseline, in that higher levels of endogenous testosterone were associated with lower sensitivity to moral norms. The results indicate that the role of testosterone in moral judgements is more complex than suggested by previous findings.

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Fig. 1: CNI model of moral decision-making predicting action versus inaction responses in moral dilemmas with proscriptive and prescriptive norms and consequences involving benefits of action that are either greater or smaller than costs of action.
Fig. 2: Parameter estimates of sensitivity to consequences (C), sensitivity to moral norms (N) and general preference for inaction versus action (I) as a function of double-blind intranasal administration of testosterone (n = 100) versus placebo (n = 100).

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This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant no. 1449620, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant No. 10.13039/100000071 R01HD084772 and a Preregistered Research Grant from the European Association of Social Psychology. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Preparation of the manuscript was supported in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (grant no. 10.13039/100000071 R01HD084772) to R.A.J. We thank M. Hütter for her help with the simulation to estimate the statistical power for the CNI model analyses.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.M.B., R.A.J. and B.G. designed the study. S.M.B. and S.C. collected the data. S.M.B., S.C. and E.S.J. immuno-assayed the saliva samples. S.M.B. and B.G. analysed the data. S.M.B. and B.G. wrote the manuscript. S.C., E.S.J. and R.A.J. provided comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Bertram Gawronski.

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Brannon, S.M., Carr, S., Jin, E.S. et al. Exogenous testosterone increases sensitivity to moral norms in moral dilemma judgements. Nat Hum Behav 3, 856–866 (2019).

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