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Testosterone predicts girls’ willingness to take risks to gain social status

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New research suggests that risk taking in early adolescent girls is associated with changes in testosterone.

The study of 63 girls (aged 10 to 14), published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that increases in testosterone levels predicted an increased appetite for social admiration. Using an auction task, the researchers found that girls with higher testosterone levels were more willing to take financial risks (by losing money) to gain social status.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Ahna Ballonoff Suleiman of the University of California at Berkeley. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Suleiman: It is well documented that early in adolescence, puberty produces a myriad of biological, social, and behavioral changes. The same hormones that stimulate in rapid physical growth, sexual maturity, increased metabolism, and changes to sleep and circadian rhythms during puberty, also lead to changes in behaviors and motivation. Adolescence is also a period of important identify formation and social interactions play a significant role in helping adolescents clarify and define their values, goals, interests, and roles in society.

In addition, testosterone increases in both sexes during puberty and prior research has shown that people with higher testosterone are more likely to sacrifice financial gain for social status. As such, we were interested in exploring how testosterone and pubertal development interacts with early adolescent girls’ motivation to sacrifice financial gain for increased social status.

What should the average person take away from your study?

This study highlighted that both more advanced pubertal development and higher testosterone predicted early adolescent girls’ greater willingness to sacrifice financial gain in order to gain social status. This means that as they were further along in puberty or they had higher testosterone, they were more likely to give up winning money in order to have other girls see that they had won a round. As adolescent girls go through puberty, it is important to remember that this social motivation becomes increasing more salient.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Because this study was cross sectional, we could not determine if the testosterone effect was a developmental effect (as testosterone increases during puberty, girls were more likely to overbid) or if it was an individual difference effect (girls with higher testosterone over bid more; or girls who experienced greater increases in testosterone during puberty were more likely to overbid more). A tightly designed, longitudinal study that collects hormone samples and had girls complete the task at multiple timepoints would help untangle this.

It would also be every helpful to do the same study with same age boys. Again, a longitudinal design would be ideal to help better understand the mechanism.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As we have highlighted in the paper, the enhanced social motivation occurring during puberty is not necessarily problematic. This social drive allows adolescents to explore new social contexts; is important for identity formation; and helps them tackle the normal tasks of adolescence. Rather than protect young people from this natural tendency, policies and programs aiming to support young people should think about positive ways to leverage this new motivation. This includes creating opportunities for adolescents to get recognition from peers for positive, health protective behavior.

The study, “Social status strategy in early adolescent girls: Testosterone and value-based decision making“, was also co-authored by Stephanie L. Cardoos, Megan Johnson, Wouter van den Bos, Stephen P. Hinshawa and Ronald E. Dahl. It was first published online March 31, 2017.

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