The dual hormone hypothesis posits that basal cortisol and testosterone have a joint effect on motivational and behavioral systems implicated in dominance and aggression, such that traits generally associated with high testosterone manifest more in individuals with low basal cortisol levels. Whether this hypothesis applies to behavioral systems other than dominance remains unclear. In the present study, we investigated the association between basal testosterone, basal cortisol, and empathy in a large population of MBA students. Empathy was assessed with a short version of the Davis’s Interpersonal Reactivity Index and with the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). Higher testosterone was predictive of lower empathy scores among men and women with low basal cortisol, while this association was reversed among individuals with high cortisol levels. In other words, a high-testosterone profile was found to be predictive of both high and low empathic dispositions depending on the concomitant HPA state. The effect was limited to self-reported empathy as no association was found with the RMET. This pattern of results, which emerged when data for men and women were analyzed together, remained significant only for men when analyses were run separately for the two sexes. These results add empathy to the list of behaviors regulated by the joint action of testosterone and cortisol, as outlined by the dual hormone hypothesis.
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