Imagine you’re walking down a busy street and see someone struggling with their groceries. Chances are, you’d be more inclined to help if others are watching. This phenomenon, known as the audience effect, plays a subtle yet significant role in shaping our behaviors, especially when it comes to acts of kindness or what psychologists call prosocial behavior.
Researchers have now discovered that testosterone significantly changes how men behave socially when observed. The study involved applying testosterone gel to the upper arms of healthy young men. This application led to a noticeable decrease in their ‘strategic’ prosocial behavior. In other words, the testosterone boost made the men more inclined to not care about other people’s opinions. They didn’t modulate their behavior while being observed compared to those who received a placebo.
Testosterone and the Audience Effect
The audience effect refers to how the presence of others alters our behavior. It’s grounded in our deep-rooted desire for social approval and fear of social judgment. This innate inclination influences our actions, often making us more likely to engage in behavior that is viewed positively by others. Prosocial actions include sharing, comforting, and cooperating, often motivated by empathy or societal norms.
Previously, researchers found that individuals were more likely to donate to charity when they knew their actions were being observed by others. Another study revealed that people were quicker to lend a helping hand when in the presence of a group, compared to when they were alone.
The rise of social media has provided a new platform for the audience effect. Campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (anyone remember this trend?) gained momentum largely due to the public nature of participation and the desire among participants to be seen supporting a good cause.
Psychologists at the University of Vienna wanted to investigate whether testosterone may in some way modulate this effect. Led by Hana H. Kutlikova, the study involved 190 men aged 18 to 40. Researchers divided participants into two groups. One group received testosterone gel, and the other a placebo. After applying the gel, participants waited two hours before completing tasks designed to measure their prosocial behavior.
During the learning task, the participants could earn monetary rewards for themselves or a chosen non-governmental organization (NGO). The task involved choosing between two abstract symbols, one with a 75% chance and the other with a 25% chance of yielding rewards. Sometimes they were making the choice for themselves and sometimes for the NGO.
Without prior instructions, participants learned through trial and error which symbol was more likely to provide rewards. Their choices were made via button press, followed by feedback on point acquisition. These points were later converted to money.
The task was completed under two conditions: in private or observed by two female observers, who were presented as NGO representatives for a bit of extra heat. The participants were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions.
After the task, participants completed a questionnaire about their feeling of being watched during the experiment, with responses ranging from ‘not at all’ to ‘strongly’. This aimed to gauge their subjective perception of surveillance during the task.
The study found that men who applied testosterone gel showed less prosocial behavior when observed compared to the placebo group. They didn’t take as much care in making choices when the NGO’s money was at stake — even when the NGO ladies were watching them. The amount of effort they put into selections for their own money, however, was unchanged. This result suggests that testosterone can reduce the influence of the audience effect.
The study also explored interactions between testosterone, cortisol (a stress hormone) and specific gene variants and found no significant interactions. However, the researchers did note some connections between testosterone effects and personal values, suggesting a more complex interplay of factors.
These findings add a new dimension to our understanding of how hormones can influence social behavior. It shows that testosterone may reduce the desire to seek social approval through generosity.
Note that the study did also have its limitations, including its focus on a specific demographic (mostly students) and the artificial nature of the tasks. Real-world behavior among diverse populations might differ. For instance, a 2016 study from Trinity College Dublin reached somewhat contradictory results. It found testosterone enhances behaviors associated with obtaining and maintaining high social status. The study employed a modified version of the Ultimatum Game, where participants treated with testosterone showed a propensity to punish unfair offers and reward generous ones.
Looks like testosterone is a pretty complicated hormone.
The study appeared in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
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