Animal research has established a link between hierarchical social interactions and testosterone, with high-testosterone individuals generally conveying elevated status in their social group. In modern western society, males often signal their status by purchasing and flaunting consumer goods that are typically difficult to access by individuals with fewer resources. A new study published in Nature Communications was able to further provide evidence of this relationship: a single dose of testosterone was enough to enhance men’s preferences for luxury brands.

Credit: Mad Men.

Credit: Mad Men.

Social hierarchies are ubiquitous across the animal kingdom. At the group level, hierarchies lessen friction between leaders and followers, enabling better group coordination and reducing conflict for resources. At the individual level, social rank can have a significant impact on mating opportunities, access to resources, stress levels, and social influence, depending on how high or low the status is. It’s no wonder that from fish to humans, individuals will exert effort and energy to climb the social ladder and increase their status.

In early hunter-gatherer societies, men would seek to elevate their status, or prestige, within the group by displaying superior hunting skills or by exerting dominance through physical aggression. In modern times, men don’t need to bash heads or hunt wild boar in order to gain a better position within the social hierarchy. Psychologists have identified various strategies by which individuals can gain status in today’s age, such as attaining a culturally-relevant skill (earning a degree) or displaying wealth through positional consumption.

The idea is that seemingly wasteful behavior, such as paying thousands of dollars on designer clothing or a flashy watch, signals to others an apparent abundance of resources. In a new study, Gideon Nave and colleagues at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania investigated whether elevated testosterone levels might influence consumer spending in men.

In many animals species, testosterone levels jump during the breeding season, causing males to engage in conspicuous displays of status — examples include courtship singing in birds or growth of antlers in stags.

The team recruited 243 male volunteers ranging from ages 18 to 55 and separated them in two groups: half were given a dose of testosterone, in gel form, while the other half received an inert placebo gel.

a) Preference task showing the setup and main dependent variable. b) Mean social rank and quality association ratings of brands pre-classified based on a pretest as high vs. low rank. c) Mean preference toward the high (versus low) social rank brands for the two treatment groups. Credit: Nature Communications.

a) Preference task showing the setup and main dependent variable. b) Mean social rank and quality association ratings of brands pre-classified based on a pretest as high vs. low rank. c) Mean preference toward the high (versus low) social rank brands for the two treatment groups. Credit: Nature Communications.

Each participant was asked to choose their favorite from a pair of brand-name products, such as jeans. For each pair, the products were of similar quality but of different status significance.

The results suggest that even that single dose of testosterone drove men to prefer higher-status brands over their lower-status alternatives, albeit of equal quality. The effect was especially pronounced when the products had a label advertising their status-enhancing properties. In a related note, another study published last week found that men who are of high status in their social group are rewarded by a boost of testosterone. With today’s study, one might assert that testosterone and status seem to be in an interdependent relationship.

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