As dangerous and illegal as anabolic steroids are, they’re also – to put it bluntly – fricking everywhere. Without them, we’d have no Terminator, flabbier movie stars, and, apparently, barely any good baseball. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous that roughly one in 15 men are estimated to have used them at some point.
But who are these men? One recent study offers a worrying answer: some, at least, may be psychopaths.
“It is not certain whether AAS [anabolic–androgenic steroid] use predicts psychopathic traits or if the existence of psychopathic traits may actually be a risk factor for AAS use,” explains the paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports. “[But] we note that AAS nonusers who considered AAS use had over twice the odds of psychopathic traits compared to AAS nonusers who never considered AAS use.”
It may seem like a hyperbolic conclusion – but “psychopathy” is more than just a frivolous accusation: it’s a recognized personality disorder, characterized by unusually low levels of empathy and remorse, a lack of emotions, high levels of egotism, and persistent antisocial behavior.
And something else that’s connected to antisocial behavior is – you guessed it – steroid abuse. Quite famously, in some cases: it's not for nothing that one of the best-known side effects of AAS use is named “roid rage” – and in fact using illicit substances can itself be a marker of psychopathy.
But other links between the two disorders are less well-known – and highly concerning: “some [AAS] users report delusions of grandeur and invincibility, while others experience depression and various mood disturbances,” notes the paper.
Some of the most recent studies show an association between steroid use and cortical thinning, loss of gray matter, and increased right amygdala volume in the brain – symptoms more often seen in conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. And on top of that, the paper points out, “AAS use seems to accelerate brain aging through oxidative stress and apoptosis, is associated with lower cognitive function, and may disrupt normal neuronal function in the forebrain” – all of which can increase anxiety and aggressiveness, and diminish inhibitory control.
If that sounds exactly like the definition of psychopathy to you, you’re not alone. That’s why the authors of the study – Brian S Nelson, Tom Hildebrandt, and Pascal Wallisch, all psychologists from institutions in New York – set out to explore what has so far been an understudied aspect of AAS use.
“We anonymously recruited a large online sample of 492… adult biologically male bodybuilders and asked them questions about their Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drug (APED) use (if any), exercise and dietary habits, psychological states, risk-taking behaviors, and any physical problems they might have experienced,” the authors explain. The aim was simple: to discover the link – or lack thereof – between the use of these substances and some of these more classic signs of psychopathy.
The results were clear: the authors’ analysis showed AAS users had a more than threefold increase in the likelihood of engaging in substance use risk-taking behaviors, nearly twice the odds of engaging in sexual risk-taking behaviors, almost twice the likelihood of experiencing anger problems, and – in case you weren’t getting the hint – more than twice the odds of exhibiting psychopathic traits than non-users. And that last probability was found to stack: with each additional type of steroid used, respondents had a 19 percent higher chance of exhibiting psychopathic traits.
But while the information may be unambiguous, the conclusions are far from settled. It’s a cross-sectional study, offering few clues as to whether the associations found are causal – and if so, in which direction that causation travels – both due to some confounding variable, or simply chance. As the authors themselves write, “any attempts to speculate about causality should be made with extreme caution.”
So, for example, it’s true that psychopathy “is related to both antisocial personality disorder and conduct disorder, each of which is associated with AAS use,” the paper points out, while “conduct disorder in particular is a major risk factor for AAS use that cannot be entirely explained by use of other drugs.” But alternatively, the authors suggest, the link “may be dynamic; bodybuilders with psychopathic tendencies may be more willing to begin AAS in the first place. Subsequently, these traits might be amplified either chemically by AAS use or psychologically by the environment.”
Another possibility lies in the demographics sampled: a self-selected group of mainly young, male bodybuilders, most of them relatively new to the activity. Perhaps this type of person is simply more likely to exhibit psychopathic traits – the authors do note that an outright majority of respondents “were considered to have substance use risk-taking, sexual risk-taking, anger problems, emotional stability problems, cognitive problems, depressive symptoms, impulsivity symptoms, and physical problems.” Perhaps, they posit, “a large proportion of bodybuilders [who are] willing to make the jump to using AAS may already have pre-existing psychopathic traits.”
One thing is for sure, though: this is just the beginning of the puzzle. It will take more studies and analyses, designed specifically to investigate directional causal relationships between the two traits, to figure out precisely what might be behind the link.
The study was published in Scientific Reports.