Splurge A on Gucci suit or dream Ferrari? Blame testosterone, study finds

PASADENA, Calif. — Might testosterone levels predict a man’s preferences when it comes to clothing brands and car models? New research shows just how influential the hormone is when it comes to showiness.

Early studies of testosterone conducted on prisoners showed what many expected: inmates with the highest levels of the hormone were the most aggressive and violent. But those results might be a bit misleading to some.

Instead of directly increasing aggression, experiments show that testosterone affects the way a man attempts to display his dominance — through more subtle demonstrations of status-seeking behavior. While this may have manifested as aggression in such the early prison experiments, a recent study shows it might be just as likely to cause men to, believe it or not, spend more at the shopping mall.

“In the animal kingdom, testosterone promotes aggression, but the aggression is in service of status,” says Caltech researcher Colin Camerer, in a press release. “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.”

In Camerer’s experiment, 243 males between the ages of 18 and 55 were given either a dose of testosterone or a placebo and then asked to choose between different versions of consumer goods such as watches or jeans. The results showed the men dosed with testosterone were more likely to pick the high-status luxury version of an item, regardless of its utility or quality.

Known in popular culture as “peacocking,” the practice of choosing flashy goods to attract a mate has an apt name according to the researchers.

“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,” Camerer 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.”

While not exactly charitable giving, testosterone-fueled luxury purchases are decidedly preferable to physically aggressive behavior. So it would seem this latest study adds evidence that testosterone drives behavior that is about status, not violence.

Indeed the researchers write that many previous studies, of both males and females, “showed that pharmacologically elevated T increased generosity, cooperation, and honesty, all of which are pro-social non-aggressive behaviors that may promote one’s status.”

In the conclusion of the paper, the researchers also note the products that promote status vary culturally, so in some circles a non-luxury item’s appeal might be increased. That is to say in some rural settings, for example, the “right” pair of workboots might take the place of a Rolex.

Accordingly, the team notes their research might be of interest to a variety of advertisers.

“Men experience situational elevation in T during and following sporting events, in the presence of attractive mates, and following meaningful life events such as graduation and divorce,” the researchers write. “Our results suggest that in such contexts, male consumers might be more likely to engage in positional consumption, and might find status-related brand communications more appealing.”

The paper was published in the journal Nature. The research team also included authors from The Wharton School, INSEAD, ZRT Laboratory, and the Sorbonne University.