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Testosterone and Proactive-Reactive Aggression in Youth: the Moderating Role of Harsh Discipline


This study tests a biosocial model of the link between testosterone and proactive-reactive aggression in youth at varying levels of harsh discipline. Given that proactive aggression is used to gain power and status and the importance of social learning in its formation, we hypothesized that testosterone would be associated with proactive aggression at higher levels of harsh discipline, and that this relationship would be more pronounced in boys than girls. Participants (n = 445; 50% male; M age = 11.92 years; 80% African-American) and their caregivers completed questionnaires including demographics, conflict tactics, and proactive-reactive aggression. Youth also provided a saliva sample for testosterone. Analyses revealed an interaction between testosterone and harsh discipline on proactive aggression in both boys and girls, and an interaction between testosterone and harsh discipline on reactive aggression in boys only. For those experiencing high levels of harsh discipline, testosterone was positively associated with proactive aggression, with the magnitude of the association increasing as harsh discipline increased. For below average levels of harsh discipline, there were protective effects of high testosterone for boy’s reactive aggression and for girl’s proactive aggression. The findings support basic tenets of the biosocial model which suggest that links between testosterone and aggressive behavior are dependent on contextual forces, highlighting the complex relationship between hormones, social context, and aggression. Novel findings include protective effects of high testosterone for those exposed to low levels of harsh discipline. Findings are discussed in light of the context-contingency effect and also within the differential susceptibility framework.

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This project was funded, in part, by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health (SAP# 4100043366). The Department specifically disclaims responsibility for any analyses, interpretations or conclusions. It was also supported by the Clinical & Translational Research Center, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania (grant number UL1-RR-024134).

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Correspondence to Frances R. Chen.

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In the interest of full disclosure, DAG is Founder and Chief Scientific and Strategy Advisor at Salimetrics LLC and SalivaBio LLC and these relationships are managed by the policies of the committees on conflict of interest at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of California, Irvine.

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No other author has conflicts to disclose.

Ethical Approval

The HBB project was approved by institutional review board of the University of Pennsylvania and of the Philadelphia Department of Health.

Informed Consent

Caregivers gave informed consent and youth gave assent after description of the study was given.

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Chen, F.R., Raine, A. & Granger, D.A. Testosterone and Proactive-Reactive Aggression in Youth: the Moderating Role of Harsh Discipline. J Abnorm Child Psychol 46, 1599–1612 (2018).

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  • Testosterone
  • Harsh discipline
  • Proactive aggression
  • Reactive aggression
  • Biosocial