Testosterone, our brains and fast cars

According to a recent study, Testosterone might drive male* desire for luxury items like sports cars, expensive clothes and watches. But why?

Scientists invited men aged from 18 to 55 to do some shopping after a shot of testosterone –

The testosterone-boosted chaps (or a significant number of them) chose items described as “luxurious” or “prestige” compared to shoppers given a placebo (a dummy “drug”).

Researchers conclude that men with high testosterone are more likely to purchase luxury items, because – they suggest – these are status symbols that put them ahead of competitors.

(*this study was exclusively focussed on males, although a planned female study will be equally, if not more, interesting – see below)

No surprise there?

Spending to “show off” is perhaps not surprising – both men and women do it. Yet a link between testosterone (an important hormone in development and fertility) and the “consumption” of luxuries raises a question – is it really all for status? Could there be another reason testosterone pushes us towards luxuries?

Back to the study, and a shock – the testosterone-fuelled shoppers did not pounce on brands advertised as “powerful” or “athletic”  – only the luxury items.

Others have commented that “extra testosterone makes men act likes animals”, but perhaps the important question is “which animals?” Taken together, the two experiments suggest testosterone may prompt a show of luxury (like a peacock’s feathers), but not a show of power (like lions).

One of the authors, Dr Colin Camerer, concludes:

“Our weapons are what we wear, drive, and live in rather than claws, fists, and muscles”


What does this mean for me?

Does luxury always = status?

Are all Ferrari owners always eager to show off? Might there be another reason to seek out luxury? Because it’s FUN?!

It might be a comfort that we may have a “natural” drive to seek luxury items out. That doesn’t mean you have to do it, of course!

“It wasn’t me who blew the mortgage on a sports car, it was my testosterone.”

But of course hormones are still part of “us”, as are the parts of your brain capable of making choices. Testosterone has been linked with impulse decision making. Provocatively, it may be that a knee-jerk purchase, even one programmed into your genes, is in conflict with more evolved emotions – like guilt – leading to buyer’s remorse.

If you don’t spend luxuriously, perhaps testosterone is behind less obvious acts of status (or fun seeking) that could be seen as luxuries – travel, maybe, or learning new skills. People – including the men who took part in the study – may find status, or thrills, in different places, after all.

But what about women? This study was limited to men, purely to allow comparisons with the bulk of previous research in other male animals. But a similar study is planned for women, potentially revealing even more about testosterone due to its different roles in the female body.

Taking something home

Advertisers are no doubt taking note of the subtle – but lucrative – difference between powerful and luxurious language. Perhaps it’s interesting to reflect on how this study makes us feel about our spending – does it give us an excuse to spend more, or a reason to fight against our urges?

In science as in coaching, there is no “right” answer here, just an answer that works for you.

Original Research: (Open access) “Single-dose testosterone administration increases men’s preference for status goods” by G. Nave, A. Nadler, D. Dubois, D. Zava, C. Camerer & H. Plassmann in Nature Communications. Published July 3 2018.

Dr John Ankers offers down-to-earth coaching for life, business and academia. He is based in Liverpool, UK. www.johnankerscoaching.com

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Posted in Life coaching, neuroscience.