Anthropologists will tell you that in early human societies, skills like hunting and physical aggression were keys to one’s social ranking. This was important because, in scientific terms, a high social ranking allowed you to access bountiful amounts of nookie.
Things haven’t changed all that much. Hell, even Napoleon Dynamite recognized the importance of “good skills” in improving mating opportunities:
“I don’t even have any good skills. You know, like numchuck (sic) skills… bow-hunting skills… computer-hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!”
Napoleon might have had a rotten grasp of exactly which skills were desirable, but at least he understood the basic point. Of course, skills are only a pathway to status, and status is generally interchangeable with money, which is awfully appealing to women folk, too.
Much of this quest for skills, status, and/or money often appears to be determined by testosterone levels. Men who have more of it consciously and subconsciously seek status (probably as a means to improve mating opportunities). At least that’s what we think, but a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania tried to see if they could prove it.
What They Did
Researchers rounded up 234 men between the ages of 18 and 55. Half of the men were asked to rub themselves with a testosterone gel and half were asked to rub themselves with an inert gel.
Four hours later, they were asked to read three versions of ad copy for each of 6 different products, among them some fancy watches. In one version of the ad copy, the emphasis was on quality; on another, power; and on the third, status.
For instance, the ad copy emphasizing the quality aspect of Alpina watches read as follows:
“Extreme robustness, high precision, technology, and comfort are part of this watch’s DNA. Our supreme quality watches have been a symbol of reliability in the most demanding situations, and a benchmark for innovation, combining state-of-the-art Swiss machinery and strict quality control tests for centuries.”
Contrast that with the ad copy emphasizing the status aspect of owning an Alpina watch:
“Prestige, artisanal spirit, luxury, and attention are part of this watch’s DNA. Our world-famous watches have been a symbol of a way of life, and a benchmark for fashionable style, combining sophisticated Italian design and timeless reputation for centuries.”
The men were then asked to indicate which description made them want to own the product the most.
What They Found
The testosterone-basted men indicated a significantly higher preference for the copy that emphasized status. The non-basted men leaned towards ad copy that emphasized quality or power (things you could do with the product).
What This Means
According to the authors,
“…we find that administering testosterone increases men’s preference for status brands of similar perceived quality but lower perceived status. Furthermore, testosterone increases positive attitudes toward positional goods when they are described as status enhancing.”
These results probably go a long way in explaining why you usually don’t see guys who look like The Rock driving Priuses or Ford Fusions.
Instead, you only catch brief glimpses of them in your rearview mirror as they tailgate you, fists clenched on the steering wheel, blingy watch blinding you with shards of reflected light, and eyes glaring because you’re only exceeding the speed limit by an anemic 10 MPH, just before they warp speed by you in their 12-cylinder BMWs.
Colin Camerer, co-author of the study, made this less-formal observation about their findings and what they meant in a subsequent press release:
“In our closest animal kin, males spend a lot of time and energy fighting to establish dominance. We do too, but our weapons are what we wear, drive, and live in rather than claws, fists, and muscles.”
It makes sense that high-testosterone males would seek status, but there may be an additional psychological layer when it comes to high-T lifters. They may feel a sense of frustration, sort of a psychic impotence, in that they have the muscles for “establishing dominance,” but cultural norms don’t allow for it.
Instead, they’re perhaps even more compelled than high-T non-lifters to choose big, flashy cars or sport bulky, bedazzled watches while living in houses that are more fortress than cute little cottage with white picket fence.
- G. Nave, A. Nadler, D. Dubois, D. Zava, C. Camerer & H. Plassmann, “Single-dose testosterone administration increases men’s preference for status goods.” Nature Communications, Volume 9, Article number: 2433 (2018).