Social Psychology

Testosterone increases narcissism and corruption among those with power, study suggests

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New research suggest that people with higher testosterone may be more inclined to abuse their power. The study, published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found higher testosterone was linked to a sense of entitlement and a willingness to exploit others.

“I think there is a lot of opportunity for leaders to do good in this world. Yet, throughout history and to this day if you look at the news and social media, many leaders use their power for their own good rather than the good of others,” said Nicole Lisette Mead of the University of Melbourne, the corresponding author of the study.

“There seemed to be a stark similarity between the behavior of the powerful and the behavior of the narcissist. Previous research suggests that narcissists are more likely to clinch positions of power, but I wondered whether power itself could produce a narcissist.”

The study of 206 men and women found that those with higher testosterone levels for their gender tended to become more narcissistic and corrupt when put in a position of power.

“When people with high testosterone are given social power, they start to believe they are entitled to special treatment and that they can exploit others for their own purposes. This means they don’t think the rules, even the law, apply to them; they can play by their own rules,” Mead told PsyPost.

In the study, the researchers randomly assigned the participants into two separate conditions. In one condition, the participants were told they would become the “boss” in a group task. In the control condition, the participants were told all group members would have equal control over the task.

People with higher testosterone in the boss condition were more likely to agree with statements such as “I insist on getting the respect that is due to me” and “There is nothing wrong with occasionally taking credit for one of your subordinates’ ideas.” But this wasn’t true of those with lower testosterone.

“The good news is that people with low testosterone and even average testosterone did not become narcissistic when they gained social power, which was about 85% of our sample. So social power has the worst effects when it gets into the hands of those who want it the most and are the most likely to get it,” Mead explained.

“In this way, we need to be more careful about leader selection (choosing people who are interested in promoting the good of the group rather than themselves) and about regulation and transparency of leaders’ behavior (exploiting other people and taking more than one deserves often happens in the shadows).”

The study — like all research — has some limitations.

“The major caveat is that we don’t know ‘why’. In other words, why is it that people with high testosterone show an increase in exploitation and entitlement when they are endowed with power,” Mead explained.

“It could be due to a variety of different reasons. We suspect, based on our past research, that it is because feelings of exploitation and entitlement help them to keep a power gap between themselves and others. In other words, it helps them protect their power.”

“Leaders who are narcissistic can be very difficult to deal with,” Mead added. “A few suggestions: 1) focus the leader on competition with other groups, firms; they will not be so focused on competing with you, but will focus on rounding up the troops to beat the competition.”

“2) narcissists often do not take the perspective of others; you can prompt the narcissistic leader to consider “what would the other person think?”; they really do care about being adored, so this may help them see where their actions could be harmful to them in the long run.”

“3) There is strength in numbers. Maybe you can’t take on the narcissist by yourself, but with enough support of others who are in a similar situation, you can gain the upper hand. Witness the #MeToo movement. Power is social; if leaders don’t have followers, they don’t have power.”

The study, “Power Increases the Socially Toxic Component of Narcissism Among Individuals With High Baseline Testosterone“, was authored by Nicole L. Mead, Roy F. Baumeister, Anika Stuppy, and Kathleen D. Vohs.