Hormone-Influenced Social Strategies Shape Human Social Hierarchy

Summary: Those with higher testosterone levels are more willing to harm others and embark in status seeking behavior, a new study reports.

Source: University of Texas at Austin.

In a game of chicken, the most aggressive players are fueled by testosterone and are more willing to harm others; and while it may be easy to demonize such hawkish behaviors, psychology researchers from The University of Texas at Austin say there is sound evolutionary reason for their existence.

High testosterone levels are associated with competitive, status-seeking social behaviors, whereas low testosterone is thought to encourage more cooperative behaviors. These differing hormone profiles have shaped social hierarchies throughout the course of human evolution, according to researchers.

“Evolutionary analysis suggests that natural selection favors a mixed population,” said UT Austin psychology professor Robert Josephs. “Evidence of different social tactics are present across species, from beetles and spiders to salmon and orangutans.”

In a study published in Hormones and Behavior, researchers modeled status interactions in a monetary hawk-dove game. Like the chicken game in which two cars drive toward each other and the first to swerve to avoid the crash is dubbed the “chicken,” the hawk-dove game allows players to adopt dominant (hawk) or subordinate (dove) strategies, for a monetary pay-off. If one player chooses hawk while the other chooses dove, the hawk receives a 4:1 larger payoff. If both players choose dove, both benefit equally, but moderately 2:2; if both players choose hawk, neither receives a payoff.

“Groups with more than one high-testosterone individual may experience high levels of status conflict that can undermine individual and collective outcomes, whereas groups that are mixed are more likely to form social hierarchies that improve coordination and foster adaptive collective performance,” said the study’s lead author and UT Austin psychology Ph.D. alumnus Pranjal Mehta, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

Ninety-eight participants were divided into same sex partners. Saliva samples were taken before and throughout the game to measure testosterone levels as well as the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol, in high levels, has been linked to submissive, avoidant behaviors, whereas in low levels, it has been linked to dominant and aggressive behaviors.

In 10 rounds of play, participants, as a whole, opted for hawk strategies half of the time, a number that did not differ between males and females that further supports the claim that an evenly mixed population of hawks and doves has been favored by evolution. However, participants with higher levels of testosterone chose hawk decisions much more often than those with low-levels. Further, participants whose cortisol increased during the game tended to opt for dove strategies, whereas those whose cortisol decreased made more hawk decisions.

“High-testosterone individuals appear to be more willing to harm others to achieve a desired outcome whereas low-testosterone individuals may experience greater empathy and are more interested in cooperating with others,” Mehta said.

Unexpectedly, participants’ self-reported satisfaction was positively associated with testosterone levels, but only among participants low in cortisol. This joint influence of testosterone and cortisol is consistent with a burgeoning literature on dual-hormone effects, in which the influence of testosterone is facilitated by low cortisol levels, but blocked by high levels of cortisol.

“Social motives reflected in dominance, deference and the pursuit of status may explain the effect of testosterone on choices in a game of chicken, but we didn’t examine these social motives directly,” Mehta said. “Future research should measure such motives to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the hormonal effects we observed.”


Source: Rachel Griess – University of Texas at Austin
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Hormonal underpinnings of status conflict: Testosterone and cortisol are related to decisions and satisfaction in the hawk-dove ” by Pranjal H. Mehta, Nicole M. Lawless DesJardins, Mark van Vugt, and Robert A. Josephs in Hormones and Behavior. Published online April 22 2017 doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2017.03.009

University of Texas at Austin “Hormone-Influenced Social Strategies Shape Human Social Hierarchy.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 24 April 2017.


Hormonal underpinnings of status conflict: Testosterone and cortisol are related to decisions and satisfaction in the hawk-dove

A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition. Testosterone is theorized to influence status-seeking behaviors such as social dominance and competitive behavior, but supporting evidence is mixed.

The present study tested the roles of testosterone and cortisol in the hawk-dove game, a dyadic economic decision-making paradigm in which earnings depend on one’s own and the other player’s choices. If one person selects the hawk strategy and the other person selects the dove strategy, the player who selected hawk attains a greater financial pay-off (status differentiation).

The worst financial outcome occurs when both players choose the hawk strategy (status confrontation). Ninety-eight undergraduate students (42 men) provided saliva samples and played ten rounds of the hawk-dove game with another same-sex participant. In support of the hypothesis that testosterone is related to status concern, individuals higher in basal testosterone made more hawk decisions — decisions that harmed the other player.

Acute decreases in cortisol were also associated with more hawk decisions. There was some empirical support for the dual-hormone hypothesis as well: basal testosterone was positively related to satisfaction in the game among low basal-cortisol individuals but not among high basal-cortisol individuals.

There were no significant sex differences in these hormonal effects. The present findings align with theories of hormones and status-seeking behavior at the individual level, but they also open up new avenues for research on hormone profiles at the collective level. Our results suggest that the presence of two or more high-testosterone members increases the likelihood of status confrontations over a limited resource that can undermine collective outcomes.

“Hormonal underpinnings of status conflict: Testosterone and cortisol are related to decisions and satisfaction in the hawk-dove ” by Pranjal H. Mehta, Nicole M. Lawless DesJardins, Mark van Vugt, and Robert A. Josephs in Hormones and Behavior. Published online April 22 2017 doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2017.03.009

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connie dello buono

Health educator, author and enterpreneur motherhealth@gmail.com or conniedbuono@gmail.com ; cell 408-854-1883 Helping families in the bay area by providing compassionate and live-in caregivers for homebound bay area seniors. Blogs at www.clubalthea.com Currently writing a self help and self cure ebook to help transform others in their journey to wellness, Healing within, transform inside and out. This is a compilation of topics Connie answered at quora.com and posts in this site.

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