Individual differences in developmental plasticity: A role for early androgens?

Marco Del Giudice, Emily S. Barrett, Jay Belsky, Sarah Hartman, Michelle M. Martel, Susanne Sangenstedt, Christopher W. Kuzawa

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Developmental plasticity is a widespread property of living organisms, but different individuals in the same species can vary greatly in how susceptible they are to environmental influences. In humans, research has sought to link variation in plasticity to physiological traits such as stress reactivity, exposure to prenatal stress-related hormones such as cortisol, and specific genes involved in major neurobiological pathways. However, the determinants of individual differences in plasticity are still poorly understood. Here we present the novel hypothesis that, in both sexes, higher exposure to androgens during prenatal and early postnatal life should lead to increased plasticity in traits that display greater male variability (i.e., a majority of physical and behavioral traits). First, we review evidence of greater phenotypic variation and higher susceptibility to environmental factors in males; we then consider evolutionary models that explain greater male variability and plasticity as a result of sexual selection. These empirical and theoretical strands converge on the hypothesis that androgens may promote developmental plasticity, at least for traits that show greater male variability. We discuss a number of potential mechanisms that may mediate this effect (including upregulation of neural plasticity), and address the question of whether androgen-induced plasticity is likely to be adaptive or maladaptive. We conclude by offering suggestions for future studies in this area, and considering some research designs that could be used to empirically test our hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-173
Number of pages9
StatePublished - Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd


  • Androgens
  • Developmental plasticity
  • Differential susceptibility
  • Sex differences
  • Sexual selection
  • Testosterone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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