Large scale study links status and testosterone

Psychologist: Link differs for men and women


A study of a marching band by psychology professor Joey Cheng has linked testosterone and status. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

When a man in a group wins, he’s likely to win again—thanks to a natural boost of testosterone, according to a study conducted by a university professor. For women, meanwhile, the effects of victories on biology are not so clear-cut.

Psychology professor Joey Cheng, and her two colleagues, Olga Kornienko (George Mason University) and Douglas Granger (University of California, Irvine), published a large-scale experiment in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicating that there is a relationship between testosterone and one’s status within the group.

This pattern is consistent with decades of laboratory experiments showing that when an individual wins a competition, this leads to a boost of testosterone. But in the event of a loss, a drop in testosterone is likely.

“The outcomes of initial status competitions might change our biology and that, in turn, affects the outcomes of our future contests,” Cheng said, thus potentially creating the “winner effect.”

Cheng and her team conducted their research on the Arizona State University marching band. They first surveyed 220 marching band members (both men and women), which made up about 72 percent of the whole band. They then had the members self-report whom they admired and who was most skilled and respected. Saliva was collected over several months to measure testosterone levels.

Over the roughly three-month test period, male members who gained high status among the band showed a growth in testosterone levels. Women, however, showed no definitive change in testosterone levels as a function of their status.

In explaining the results for women, Cheng speculated that researchers perhaps need more sensitive technology to measure women’s naturally lower level of testosterone. Another possibility, Cheng said, is that the neurobiological underpinnings of status contests are more complicated for women.

While testosterone has long been considered an aggression hormone, Cheng said her study also indicates that it’s more accurate to consider it a competition hormone that responds to and has an effect on competing for a reputation based on talent and making positive contributions to a group.  

This is because there are different avenues of competition, Cheng said—some positive and some not. For example, high returns in the financial industry have been pointed to as a factor in the housing crisis of 2007, as financial institutions—perhaps influenced by the testosterone associated with success—made riskier and riskier moves.

Cheng’s study, she said, could be helpful in creating policies for groups where success could change our biology, making us more competitive and more likely to take risks.