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Evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory, promulgated by Ellis (2003,2004, 2005), was proposed to explain the perpetration of criminal acts that harm other individuals. According to this theory, males sex hormones, primarily testosterone, promotes competitive behaviors-often behaviors that involve harming or victimizing another person.Specifically, when testosterone levels rise, the distribution of neural activation increases the incidence of competitive, and often criminal,behaviors. These behaviors evolved, especially in males, to enhance their capacity to acquire resources, which ultimately augments their ability to attract mates. One of the principal implications of this theory is that any physical or psychological feature that reflects elevated levels of testosterone, such as a deep voice, will tend to predict criminal behavior (Ellis, Das, & Buker, 2008).


According to Ellis, Das, and Buker (2008), testosterone shapes many features of the body. Individuals with elevated levels of testosterone,whether male or female, or more inclined to demonstrate many masculine features: hairy bodies, physical strength, and a deep voice, by widening the larynx for example. As a consequence, the evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory assumes that individuals who demonstrate these features should engage in more violent and criminal acts. Consistent with this premise, in a sample of over 11,000 college students, hairy bodies, physical strength, strength of sex drive, and a deep voice were correlated with self reports of various criminal offences. Furthermore,in males, penis size, which coincides with levels of testosterone, was also related to criminality.

Related findings

Sensation seeking

Various indices of masculinity have also been shown to be associated with sensation seeking--an inclination that can also predict risky and some criminal or aggressive behavior. In one study, for example, Fink, Hamdaoui, Wenig, and Neave (2010) assessed the hand-grip strength of participants. In addition, participants were asked to complete a measure of sensation seeking. This scale comprised several facets, such as the degree to which individuals participate in dangerous or thrilling sports and activities, the extent to which they seek novel experiences, the degree to which they engage in behaviors that are often perceived as taboo, and their intolerance to routine and boredom. If their grip strength was pronounced, participants were more inclined to engage in thrilling, dangerous activities.

According to Fink, Hamdaoui, Wenig, and Neave (2010), both muscle strength and sensation seeking may be associated with testosterone levels in individuals before birth. That is, if testosterone levels are elevated during this period, individuals are more likely to be muscular later in life as well as enjoy thrilling activities.

An honor culture

In some nations or states, males feel the need to demonstrate their masculinity to protect themselves and their families from threats, called honor states. Whenever their honor or reputation to be strong and tough is threatened, people are more inclined to feel that violence is an appropriate response. Violence, therefore, is more common. The southern and western states of America, apart from Hawaii and Alaska, are often regarded as honor states, for example.

Cultures of honor tend to embrace risks, partly as a means to exhibit strength. For example, in the American states that are assumed to adopt this culture of honor, the rate of accidents, such as traffic incidents, is especially high in both men and women (Barnes, Brown, & Tamborski, 2012).

Similarly, in states in which a culture of honor is pronounced, violence in schools, such as shootings, are more common (Brown, Osterman, & Barnes, 2009). Weapons are more likely to be brought to school as well (Brown, Osterman, & Barnes, 2009). These findings persisted even after economic insecurity, temperature, and proportion of people who live in the city were controlled.

Furthermore, the rate of suicide is also pronounced, both in men and women (Osterman & Brown, 2011). In particular, in these states, threats to reputation may be especially shameful. Furthermore, individuals in these states do not like to utilize resources that alleviate depression: indeed, despite the elevated levels of depression, people in these states are not as likely to be prescribed antidepressants (Osterman & Brown, 2011).

Many scholars have reflected upon the antecedents of these cultures. To illustrate, cultures of honor are common when resources are scarce, theft is prevalent, and regulations to prevent such theft are limited (for a review, see Shackelford, 2005).

Nisbett and Cohen (1996) argue that cultures of honor are likely to evolve in regions in which herding is more common than farming. When herding is prevalent, the assets and wealth of people are more precarious. Their herds, for example, can readily be lost. Consequently, individuals need to be willing to be aggressive towards anyone who threatens their wealth.

The low status compensation model

To clarify the evolution of these cultures of honor, Henry (2009) formulated the low status compensation model. Specifically, in some regions, inequality is pronounced. For example, when herding is prevalent, inequalities in income, assets, education, status, and many other characteristics abound. That is, herders are vulnerable to governments that can seize their land, to unseasonable weather, to errors such as inadequate cultivation of food, and to many other threats. Consequently, some herders will decline and other herders may thus thrive in these markets. Because of these vulnerabilities, herders need to be especially vigilant and willing to protect their resources. They recognize their material and psychological worth is fragile. Violence and aggression, therefore, are responses that evolve to protect this sense of worth.

Consistent with these arguments, Henry (2009) showed the relationship between level of herding and culture of honor is mediated by inequalities in income. Henry also showed that low status diminishes respect, recognition, and dignity as well as provokes aggression, primarily to protect self-integrity,


Barnes, C. D., Brown, R. P., & Tamborski, M. (2012). Living dangerously: Culture of honor, risk-taking, and the nonrandomness of "accidental" deaths. Social Psychological and Personality Science January, 3, 100-107. doi:10.1177/1948550611410440

Brown, R. P., Osterman, L. L., & Barnes, C. D. (2009). School violence and the culture of honor. Psychological Science, 20, 1400-1405.

Ellis, L. (2003). Genes, criminality, and the evolutionaryneuroandrogenic theory. In: A. Walsh and L. Ellis (Eds.), Biosocialcriminology: Challenging environmentalism's supremacy (pp. 13-34).Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

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Ellis, L., Das, S., & Buker, H. (2008). Androgen-promoted physiological traits and criminality: A test of the evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 44,699-709.

Fink,B., Hamdaoui, A., Wenig, F., & Neave, N. (2010). Hand-grip strength and sensation seeking. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 789-793.

Henry, P. J. (2009). Low-status compensation: A theory for understanding the role of status in cultures of honor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 451-466.

Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Osterman, L. L., & Brown, R. P. (2011). Culture of honor and violence against the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1611-1623. doi: 10.1177/0146167211418529

Shackelford, T. K. (2005). An evolutionary psychological perspective on cultures of honor. Evolutionary Psychology, 3, 381-391.

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Last Update: 5/26/2016