Men are more likely to persist against an increasingly strong opponent when they perceive high control compared to low control over the outcome. However, a new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that testosterone eradicates this effect. Men who were given testosterone were equally likely to persist in a competitive task regardless of their perceptions of control.
Competing against an opponent often involves persistence in the face of setbacks, such as being repeatedly outperformed. The psychology literature suggests that perceived control can motivate people to persist against challenges, with studies showing that people are more competitive when manipulated to feel greater control over a task outcome. The field has also pinpointed testosterone as a hormone implicated in competitiveness. Study authors Hana H. Kutlikova and her team launched the first study to explore how the two factors of perceived control and testosterone might interact to influence competitive behavior.
A sample of 88 men participated in a lab experiment where they applied either a 150 mg topical testosterone gel or a placebo gel to their skin. About two hours later, the participants went through a manipulation that induced either a high level or a low level of perceived control over a task. Accordingly, there were four possible conditions: high illusory control + testosterone, high illusory control + placebo, low illusory control + testosterone, and low illusory control + placebo.
The men then participated in a competitive task that involved pressing a keypad to light up a light bulb on a screen before their opponent. The participants were told that their opponent was another participant of the study when in reality, their opponent was computer-controlled. At the beginning of the competition, each participant was given four euros to use to place bets at each round. Importantly, all outcomes were computer generated and designed so that the computer increasingly outperformed the participant.
When the researchers analyzed participants’ behavior, they found that men who were manipulated to perceive higher control persisted more during the competitive task compared to those induced to feel lower control. But remarkably, this effect was squandered by the testosterone. Men with lower levels of perceived control who were given testosterone persisted for twice as long as the men with lower levels of control who had been given the placebo. Additionally, men with lower levels of perceived control and testosterone persisted just as long as those who felt high levels of control.
Interestingly, testosterone only affected participants with low perceived control. Men who were manipulated to feel greater control did not persist more with testosterone compared to placebo.
One explanation for why testosterone boosted the men’s competitiveness could be that the hormone undermined participants’ sensitivity to their opponent’s increasingly strong performance. But this did not seem to be the case — those in the testosterone condition actually rated their opponents as having more control over the outcomes than did those in the placebo condition, suggesting that they were especially aware that they were being outperformed.
Instead, Kutlikova and her colleagues propose that the testosterone led participants to view persistence in the competition as a way of improving social status. A motivation to boost one’s social status may have driven them to remain in the competition despite the fact that they were losing more rounds and, consequently, losing more money.
The authors discuss the potential implications of their findings, noting that, “evidence that testosterone boosts persistence especially in individuals who do not feel in control might provide helpful information for settings that require extensive repetitive training, such as neurorehabilitation (Studer et al., 2016).” They say future studies will be needed to test the effects they found across additional tasks and contexts.
The study, “Not giving up: Testosterone promotes persistence against a stronger opponent”, was authored by Hana H. Kutlikova, Shawn N. Geniole, Christoph Eisenegger, Claus Lamm, Gerhard Jocham, and Bettina Studer.