The Myth Of “Roid Rage”?

By Neuroskeptic | August 30, 2014 7:12 am

Are men who inject testosterone and other anabolic steroids at risk of entering a violent “roid rage“?

Many people think so. Whenever a professional athlete commits a violent crime, it’s not long before someone suggests that steroids may have been involved. The most recent example of this is the case of Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver. The steroid theory has emerged as an explanation for why he violently assaulted his girlfriend and then went on the run, e.g. here.


But the whole “roid rage” theory is flawed, according to a new study from Swedish researchers Lena Lundholm and colleagues, published today in the journal Addiction: Anabolic androgenic steroids and violent offending

Lundholm et al say that previous research has found correlations between anabolic steroid use and violent criminal behaviour, but that this doesn’t establish causation. The authors suggest that the true cause of the association might be that people who use steroids also tend to use other drugs like amphetamines and cocaine – and that this ‘polysubstance abuse’ is what’s most strongly linked to violence.

In a study of over 10,000 Swedish males, Lundholm et al found that men who had been convicted of a violent crime were much more likely to report having used anabolic steroids (although the rates were still low in absolute terms: 2.7%, vs. 0.6% in men not convicted.) However, they say, “this association was substantially attenuated and lost statistical significance after adjusting for other lifetime substance abuse.” In other words, men who’ve used steroids are not more likely to be convicted of violence after accounting for other drug use.

They conclude:

Our results suggest that it was not lifetime steroid use per se, but rather co-occurring polysubstance abuse that most parsimoniously explains the relatively strong association of steroid use and interpersonal violence.

However, limitations of the study include the self-report nature of the drug and steroid use data, and the fact that the study didn’t consider the timing of the use of the different drugs, and the convictions. It might be that although polysubstance use is the main risk factor for violence over the whole lifespan, men are more likely to be violent during periods of time when they are abusing anabolic steroids.

ResearchBlogging.orgLundholm L, Frisell T, Lichtenstein P, & Långström N (2014). Anabolic androgenic steroids and violent offending: Confounding by polysubstance abuse among 10,365 general population men. Addiction PMID: 25170826

CATEGORIZED UNDER: law, mental health, papers, select, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    Males do stupid bloody things to establish social status and mating rights. Testosterone is the source of all progress. Social advocacy demands advantage is managerially awarded not discriminatorily earned. Males are therefore obscene and hateful for individually achieving and bearing scars. Males must be counseled and drugged.

    Visit a gym. Males are grunting and sweating their reps in isolation. Girls are jumping around in frilly whatsis, self-affirming their latest diets in klatches. Men conquer, women seduce. Anything can be conquered. Seduction requires pre-existing product.

    If rage was not the answer, you needed more rage and a louder roar – Noble Prizes to ISIS. It is management’s task to displace discrete facts with overall ignorance. Great civilizations collapsed under abusive hegemonies of beige. If you were a mutinous air traffic controller, whom would you fear? Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

    • Chipmunk eats your peaches

      I go to a gym where people are just there to work out without judgment and then go home. Planet Fitness for the win.

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  • hnarf

    I’m curious about the extent to which the study attempts to control for social factors – it sounds perfectly plausible to me that the parts of the population most likely to use steroids and illegal drugs will also be more likely than average to commit violent crimes, which would explain the correlation without the need to postulate any causal relationship between drug- or steroid use and violence (or conversely, violence and the desire to use such substances).
    On the level of individual psychology as well, I’d hardly be surprised if there was a significant overlap between the underlying attitudes and dispositions making one more likely to use steroids and the once predictive of committing violent crimes (aggression, poor impulse control, identification with violent, physical masculine ideals, a greater interest in physical toughness in general, etc), which would account for a fair piece of the correlation.
    Although I’m by no means an expert it is my impression that much of our understanding of the influence of drugs on human behaviour has tended to overemphasise the causal role of the drugs at the expense of underlying social factors (See for example Dr Carl Hart’s recent, very readable book “High Price” about the correlation between drugs and crime in the U.S.).

    • BrS

      Possibly that should be “the part of the population most likely to use excessive amounts of drugs or steroids”. Because in truth recreational drug use cuts across all sections of the population.

      I wish my local authorities would grasp what is obvious to many of us – the drug abuse is a symptom, not a cause.

  • patriv4

    I do agree with Uncle Al, males do stupid bloody things to establish social status and mating rights, for thousands of years. Long before Multi Billion dollar drug companies started force feeding society with the ideal way a man should be, man has managed well to continue on a path to destroy, yet I believe when enough Lawyers want their fair share of the loot made off these drugs by suing the pants off of many, no pun intended, man will still have destructive tendencies.

    • JoeD

      “Multi Billion dollar drug companies started force feeding society with the ideal way a man should be”

      What? Where’s your evidence for that?

      “man has managed well to continue on a path to destroy”

      Not really living in reality, are you?

  • Smokey Ranger

    I don’t think steroids make them act that way. I think someone should look at their personality history before starting steroids. You’d probably be amazed to find they had aggressive self-centered nature then. The steroid body and strength was what eventually gave them confidence to act on that aggression

    • JoeD

      Exactly. It’s not that roids cause the aggression, it’s that many men are already fairly aggressive and have massive egos. Mix that with an increase in strength and you’ve got guys who think they’re super heroes who can take on anyone.

  • Ruben C. Arslan

    A psychologist friend with personal ‘roid experience wrote to say that he thinks it’s much more likely that they controlled for a mediator. He said he definitely noticed getting more aggressive and risk-prone and that one such risky behaviour, that he has engaged in, is the consumption of further drugs.

    The authors say

    > For each endorsed substance including AAS, additional questions addressed age at first use, age at most frequent use and intensity during that period, and age at last use. However, substantial non-response rates for these follow-up items would have compromised the analyses and were not used

    So they cannot even place the other drug use in a temporal context relative to anabolic steroids. They admit as much in the discussion and say they can’t place it in a causal chain, but then they again conclude that AAS are not the risk factor and that it’s co-occurring drug consumption instead. Causation creep!

  • andrew oh-willeke

    Who needs steroids to explain why professional athletes in full contact sports, who are rewarded and employed based upon their extremely great ability to be aggressive and physically overwhelm their opponents in their daily lives, exhibit the same traits that contribute to their success on the field less constructively off the field?

    Also, before one goes and implicates artificial hormonal tweaks, why not first look to natural variation in hormone levels between individuals. Dimes to dollars, professional athletes in full contact sports have, on average, much higher testosterone levels than other men their age. A 2006 study supports this suspicion.

  • windhill

    I’m far from an athlete, but was diagnosed with very low testosterone several months ago. I couldn’t afford the gel,, so we went with the shots….silly me, I accidently gave myself twice the prescribed dose. Two days later, got in snit with my lady, and I ended up smashing a coffe table to bits, and punched some picures, breaking the glass and cutting my arm…..let me just say, I have NEVER done anything more than snap a pencil when upset in the past- so go figure…..

  • Ulysses Elias

    Injection of testosterone may be CAUSED by violent tendencies rather than the cause of them. Just because 2 things correlate….

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  • Marco Etter

    Steroid rage is a misnomer. A hostile man or woman will quickly learn they now possess the capability to perform highly unusual feats of strength. As their strength grows to that level, they loose the ability to reason, or debate, matters to an audience. So when they can’t get their way with arguement, they resort to violence where the line of scrimmage is no longer equal. As a gym rat, I have had to ask others to clean up the machine when they are done. They have attempted to bait me with comments, but my only response is “thankyou for…………..”. The guy I’m talking about actually went on a verbal, almost physical, rant about threatening him etc. and about how I would not speak to him like that if I knew what he did for work. I told him his profession did not matter in the gym and “Thank you for wiping down the equipment.” Over time, he actually saw me train others with an education of greater safety and ettiquette, so he learned it was him slacking off rather than making points on him at a gym (it used to be a bar).

  • joe

    I can attest to this i lift heavy and actively but never touched a needle or popped steroid pills but I’ve always had anger issues since a child lifting weights just boosted my confidence to engage in risky behavior. I was more passive aggressive as a child but now a gym goer I act out on my anger. It’s not in the hormones it’s in the mind. After all neurons act miles faster than hormones in sending signals across the body. Anger involves more rapid action rather than slow deliberate behavior



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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