Bodybuilders with a history of steroid use are more likely to exhibit psychopathic traits, risk-taking behavior, and anger problems

Recent findings published in the journal Scientific Reports shed new light on the risks associated with the use of steroids among male athletes. This time, researchers found that bodybuilders with a history of steroid use were more likely to exhibit psychopathic tendencies, sexual and substance use risk-taking behaviors, and anger issues.

Anabolic-androgenic steroids are human-made variations of testosterone, the male sex hormone. Though often used for bodybuilding, steroids have been associated with various health risks including dependency, medical issues, and psychological problems. Neuroimaging studies have even suggested that steroids may induce structural changes in the brain and affect cognitive function.

A research team led by Bryan S. Nelson wanted to investigate a lesser-explored topic — the potential link between anabolic steroids and psychopathy. Psychopathy is a personality condition defined by a lack of empathy, low emotional sensitivity, and antisocial behavior. An increasing number of studies have found associations between anabolic steroid use and psychopathy and even violent crime.

In a cross-sectional study among male bodybuilders, Nelson and colleagues explored whether steroid use was associated with psychopathic tendencies and other problematic behaviors like risk-taking, anger issues, emotional problems, and cognitive problems.

The researchers distributed an internet survey among 492 male bodybuilders with an average age of 22. The men reported any past use of Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs (APEDs), and reported their exercise habits and dietary habits. They also indicated whether they had experienced various psychological states (e.g., depression, mood swings, aggression) and whether they had engaged in certain risk-taking behaviors (e.g., unprotected sex, using stimulants without prescription, drinking alcohol). Finally, they completed assessments of psychopathy, impulsivity, anxiety, depression, and aggravation.

After analyzing the data, the study authors found that bodybuilders with a history of steroid use were more than twice as likely to exhibit psychopathic traits than those with no history of steroid use. They were also more than three times as likely to engage in substance use risk-taking, almost twice as likely to engage in sexual risk-taking, almost twice as likely to report anger problems, and more than twice as likely to report physical problems.

Additionally, bodybuilders who had not used anabolic steroids — but had considered it — were more likely to exhibit psychopathic traits, substance use or sexual risk-taking, anger issues, emotional stability issues, depressive symptoms, and impulsivity when compared to bodybuilders who had never considered using anabolic steroids.

Moreover, participants’ chances of exhibiting psychopathic traits increased with the number of steroids they used. For every additional type of APED used, bodybuilders had a 19% higher likelihood of psychopathy traits.

Overall, the findings offer strong evidence that the use of steroids is linked to an increased risk of psychopathic tendencies. However, since the study was cross-sectional, the researchers say the direction of this association is unclear. While steroids might contribute to psychopathy, it could also be that psychopathy contributes to the use of steroids. Since psychopathy is associated with risk-taking behavior (including substance use), it may be that bodybuilders who decide to take steroids have pre-existing psychopathic tendencies.

The authors speculate that psychopathic tendencies could be an underlying mechanism connecting the use of steroids to anger issues, although future research is needed to explore this. With longitudinal studies, researchers might also begin to untangle the causality between steroid use and psychopathy.

The study, “Anabolic–androgenic steroid use is associated with psychopathy, risk‑taking, anger, and physical problems”, was authored by Bryan S. Nelson, Tom Hildebrandt, and Pascal Wallisch.

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