Women’s after-competition testosterone predicts their prosocial attitudes towards opponents

Sustained high-levels of testosterone levels after competition in women predicts their willingness to reconcile with a recent opponent in victory and defeat, according to a recent study published this September in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. The study provides evidence of times when social status is benefitted more through social cohesion and prosocial behavior rather than overt aggression.

Having social status and power has many survival advantages, such as increasing an individual’s access to limited resources. Individuals seeking dominance are typically viewed as acting through various forms of aggression, with higher levels of testosterone (a steroid hormone produced in men and in lesser amounts in women) thought to promote aggressive or antisocial behavior in order to increase or maintain social status.

However, there are many other ways that an individual can achieve and maintain social status and power, some of which may seem prosocial in nature. Recent research has begun to explore the association between testosterone and more prosocial behaviors relevant to social status. For example, good leaders who possess abundant social influence are often individuals that are well liked and develop positive relationships by being sensitive, responsive, and caring towards their followers.

Within sport, research has shown that testosterone increases substantially over the course of athletic competition but its relationship with prosocial attitudes and status-seeking behavior following competition has not been studied.

The study, by Kathleen Casto & David Edwards of Emory University, investigated the relationship between testosterone and cortisol (a steroid hormone related to physiological and psychological stress) and willingness to reconcile with an opponent after athletic competition. Members of a women’s soccer team gave saliva samples associated with two competitions (one victory and one defeat) and samples were assayed for testosterone and cortisol. Before giving the final saliva sample after each match, participants also completed a questionnaire measuring their willingness to reconcile with a recent opponent.

The results revealed that testosterone and cortisol levels increased during competition, but decreased in the 30-min period after the end of play. Willingness to reconcile with a recent opponent scores were higher, on average, after the win compared to the loss. Furthermore, these scores showed a strong positive correlation with after-game changes in testosterone level in both matches. Whether they had won or lost, women whose testosterone levels remained relatively high after the end of the match were more willing to reconcile with their opponent. There were no relationships between reconciliation scores and cortisol levels.

The authors concluded, “Sustained high levels of testosterone may motivate reconciliation and other prosocial behavior at times when status is benefitted more through social cohesion rather than overt aggression.”