Men who receive a high status in their social group are rewarded by a boost of testosterone, a new study found. The findings cement the relationship between the so-called “winner effect” and testosterone.
The “winner effect” is a well-established phenomenon characterized by the release of testosterone and dopamine whenever an animal, be it a fish or human, wins a contest. With each win, the brain’s structure and chemical makeup changes, prepping the brain for more wins. In other words, an animal that beats a weaker opponent “gets on a roll” and is then more likely to defeat a stronger opponent. Meanwhile, the opposite is true for the defeated who suffers from the “loser effect” and becomes meeker and more submissive with each loss. According to neuroscientist Ian Robertson, author of the Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, “success and failure shape us more powerfully than genetics and drugs.”
In his book, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust, John Coates explains how traders with higher testosterone level also experienced more profitable days. In traders, testosterone rises sharply and stays elevated during financial booms, inducing a state of risk-seeking euphoria and providing a positive feedback loop in which success reinforces itself by providing a competitive advantage. In contrast, traders who go through turmoil have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Traders with sustained high levels of cortisol become more risk-averse and timid, ultimately being less competitive.
A new study, Joey T. Cheng, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with colleagues, explored the winner effect in a prestige setting. The researchers followed 177 marching band members of a period two-months, sampling their testosterone levels before the study started and right after the study ended. Each participant was surveyed about who they thought was most successful, skilled, or respected member of the band.
“We looked at this in a college marching band community, a social context in which talent, expertise, and musical ability are likely very important to one’s social rank in the community,” Cheng said. “What we found converges with what has been shown in other species — winning a high prestige standing predicts a rise in testosterone.”
The members were ranked and displayed so that each participant could see his standing or status within the social group. The men who were ranked as the top members of the marching band showed rising testosterone levels that stayed elevated over the following months. In contrast, men who were ranked at the bottom showed a decline or little change in testosterone
“Our social experiences — such as the experiences of winning in a variety of different contexts that make us feel respected, admired, and proud — have far-reaching effects on our psychology and biology. The effects of these kinds of experiences have significant effects on our motivation, morale, and future success,” Cheng told PsyPost.
Curiously, the same effects did not carry through in the case of women, suggesting that a woman’s status is not related to prestige. “More work is needed on understanding how women compete for status and the physiological substrates that underlie women’s competitive encounters,” Cheng added.
In his book, Robertson outlines some solid advice in order to take advantage of the winner effect. He advises people not to talk themselves into failure (women who were told they were taking a test of “math ability” often performed worse than those who took a test of “general ability”), work with small goals so a small win gradually builds up to a big win, and be careful when in power (winners can turn into losers very quickly).
The findings appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.