Buying Under the Influence (of Testosterone)

Summary: Researchers say men with higher testosterone levels have a greater preference for goods that are considered to be luxurious status symbols.

Source: CalTech.

Some men, it seems, can’t get enough of luxury goods like European sports cars or designer jeans. Now, scientists have figured out why: testosterone.

A new study shows that testosterone has a measurable effect on a man’s preference for brands that are considered to be status symbols. For instance, a man with a higher level of testosterone in his body will be more likely than a man with lower testosterone levels to prefer a pair of Calvin Klein jeans over a pair of Levi’s.

That makes sense, says Caltech’s Colin Camerer, one of the authors of the study that appears in the July 3 edition of Nature Communications, because one of the primary functions of testosterone is to generate both status-seeking and status-protecting behaviors.

“In the animal kingdom, testosterone promotes aggression, but the aggression is in service of status,” says Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics and the T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience Leadership Chair. “A lot of human behaviors are repurposed behaviors seen in our primate relatives. So, here, we’re replacing physical aggression with a sort of ‘consumer’ aggression.”

The study—conducted by researchers from Caltech, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Western Ontario, and ZRT Laboratory—gets to the biological heart of what we call conspicuous consumption, the human practice of acquiring and showing off luxury goods and services to increase one’s social status. Camerer likens the costs of this behavior to the cost and weight of the elaborate tails carried around by male peacocks.

“If it didn’t need to attract mates, a peacock would be better off without its tail. It would be easier for the peacock to escape from predators and easier for it to find food if it wasn’t carrying that tail around,” he says. “In biology, that’s known as costly signaling. A human male would probably be better off not spending $300,000 on a car but, by buying that car, he’s showing people that he’s wealthy enough that he can.”

The study included 243 male volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55 who were randomly selected to receive a dose of testosterone gel or placebo gel that would absorb through their skin. They were sent home and asked to return to the lab about four hours later, when testosterone levels in their blood would be near peak. Upon returning, they participated in tasks designed to gauge their preferences for different types of goods.

The first task presented participants with a 10-point scale that had a brand associated with high social status at one end and a brand with lower social status but otherwise equivalent quality at the other end. They were asked to move a slider toward the brand they preferred with the slider’s proximity to the brand indicating how strong their preference was.

The data the researchers collected during this task showed that the men who received a dose of testosterone had a stronger preference for the luxury brands than did the men who received the placebo.

The second task was designed to tease apart testosterone’s effect on the desire for luxury good from other potential effects, like an increased desire for high-quality goods or for goods that evoked a sense of power.

a red sports car

The task presented the study participants with a series of ads for consumer goods such as a car, a pair of sunglasses, or a coffee machine. The participants were randomly presented with one of three versions of an advertisement for each item, with each version of the ad emphasizing either the item’s quality, luxuriousness, or power. After reviewing the ad, they were asked to rate their attitude toward that item on a scale of 1–10.

The data from this task—as with the first task—showed that men who received a dose of testosterone had a stronger preference for luxury goods than men who received the placebo. There was no corresponding increase in preference for goods that were advertised as powerful or higher in quality.

“In our closest animal kin, males spend a lot of time and energy fighting to establish dominance. We do, too, but our weapons are what we wear, drive, and live in rather than claws, fists, and muscles,” Camerer says.


Funding: Funding and support for the study was provided by INSEAD, the MacArthur Foundation, Ivey Business School, the International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics, and the Russell Sage Foundation.

Source: Emily Velasco – CalTech
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “Single-dose testosterone administration increases men’s preference for status goods” by G. Nave, A. Nadler, D. Dubois, D. Zava, C. Camerer & H. Plassmann in Nature Communications. Published July 3 2018.

CalTech”Buying Under the Influence (of Testosterone).” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 3 July 2018.


Single-dose testosterone administration increases men’s preference for status goods

In modern human cultures where social hierarchies are ubiquitous, people typically signal their hierarchical position through consumption of positional goods—goods that convey one’s social position, such as luxury products. Building on animal research and early correlational human studies linking the sex steroid hormone testosterone with hierarchical social interactions, we investigate the influence of testosterone on men’s preferences for positional goods. Using a placebo-controlled experiment (N = 243) to measure individuals’ desire for status brands and products, we find that administering testosterone increases men’s preference for status brands, compared to brands of similar perceived quality but lower perceived status. Furthermore, testosterone increases positive attitudes toward positional goods when they are described as status-enhancing, but not when they are described as power-enhancing or high in quality. Our results provide novel causal evidence for the biological roots of men’s preferences for status, bridging decades of animal behavioral studies with contemporary consumer research.