Testosterone Can Make Us Generous, But Only When We Do Not Perceive a Threat

Posted by Dr. Michael White, Updated on November 25th, 2021
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Hormones are amazing, but confusing chemicals within our bodies that control so many aspects of our behavior and decisions.

Testosterone is one of these hormones, and an exciting new study has shed light on how it affects our behavior towards others. The lead researcher of this study was Maarten Boksem of Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University.

It turns out; testosterone is a crucial hormone in human relationships and how we create and maintain our social relationships. The new study wanted to take an older survey a step further, where it was suggested that testosterone plays a crucial role in dominance-type behavior, which can be interpreted as “anti-social behavior.”

However, Boksem's study showed that testosterone could actually lead to more social and caring actions if the reward of such actions leads to a higher social status. Boksem states that testosterone “can induce pro-social behavior...when high status and good reputation are best served by positive behavior.”

For the study, 54 female participants drank a solution several hours before playing an investing game. Half the volunteers drank a placebo while the others drank one with added testosterone.

At the beginning of the game, they were each given $21.00 to play with. Each participant could choose how much of that money they wanted to keep and how much they'd rather invest with a trustee.

The invested money would then be tripled and split by the trustee who would keep whatever portion she wanted and return the rest to the investor.

Each participant took turns playing both roles. As a trustee, they were always given $65.61, which indicated that the investor had entrusted them with the task of splitting up the entire sum.

Now for the results: the investors who were given testosterone were more greedy with the money by keeping more of the initial sum and placing less with the trustee. The participants with the placebo trusted their investors more and invested, on average, $3.50 more than the testosterone group.

In terms of being in the investor role, the participants acted as the researchers predicted by being more anti-social and less trusting in response to a “threat” or the loss of their money.

When the roles were reversed, however, the opposite happened. The testosterone group gave more money back to the investors when they were trustees than the ones who only given the placebo. The researchers thought that the testosterone made the trustees more responsible and repaid the money they owed to the investor.

Professor Boksem stated, “While we expected the decrease in trust found in the first scenario, the increase in reciprocity was surprisingly strong and robust.

“Testosterone had a more pronounced effect on pro-social behavior than on anti-social behavior.”

This study was only performed on women, and Boksem and fellow researchers hope to run a similar stud on men.

Previous researchers at Claremont Graduate University found that men with high testosterone levels are less generous, or feel less responsibility to pay back, than men with low levels of testosterone.

It's possible this could be due to high testosterone levels blocking another hormone called oxytocin, which also plays a role in generosity. Oxytocin is the hormone released by women during after their babies are born that is believed to aid in the bonding and care for the new infant.

Stay tuned and follow our blog to keep up with the latest research about testosterone – a vital hormone for both men and women!

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