New study finds evidence that prestige increases testosterone levels in men

Men who achieve a high standing are rewarded with a boost in testosterone, according to new research published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study found social prestige predicted longitudinal changes in testosterone among men in a university marching band.

“We were fascinated with the so-called ‘winner effect’ that have been observed in many different species, from insects, fish, to non-human primates,” said Joey T. Cheng, the corresponding author of the study and an assistant psychology professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The winner effect refers to how an animal that has won a fight or some kind of competition is more likely to go on winning in subsequent encounters. Biologists have known about this for a very long time and have been wrestling with trying to understand how the winner effect comes about. That is, how does a previous victory help an individual win again?”

“One crucial answer they’ve stumbled upon lies in the organism’s hidden physiology. It turns out that winning produces a surge in testosterone, and this rising level of testosterone increases an individual’s competitive ability, such as its persistence and confidence, and thus increasing the odds of future victories,” Cheng explained to PsyPost.

“Surprisingly, there’s been much less work on the winner effect and testosterone changes in humans. So we thought it is important to study this. In particularly, we focused on studying what happens to the physiology of people who win prestige — a form of contest that is very prevalent in our species, perhaps more so than direct physical contests based on dominance (that are common in other animals).”

“We looked at this in a college marching band community, a social context in which talent, expertise, and musical ability are likely very important to one’s social rank in the community,” Cheng said. “What we found converges with what has been shown in other species — winning a high prestige standing predicts a rise in testosterone.”

The researchers examined changes in testosterone levels over a 2-month period in 177 marching band members, who were surveyed about who they considered to be the most successful, skilled, or respected members of their musical community.

They found that men who were ranked as the top members of the marching band showed a rising testosterone profile over the following months. Men with low-prestige, on the other hand, showed a decline or little change in testosterone. This was true even after controlling for the potential effects of dominance-based status, social popularity, and friendship network dynamics.

“Our social experiences — such as the experiences of winning in a variety of different contexts that make us feel respected, admired, and proud — have far-reaching effects on our psychology and biology. The effects of these kinds of experiences have significant effects on our motivation, morale, and future success,” Cheng told PsyPost.

“We found these effects of status-dependent testosterone changes in men only. By contrast, women’s status appeared to be unrelated to their prestige in the community. More work is needed on understanding how women compete for status and the physiological substrates that underlie women’s competitive encounters.”

“It’s fascinating to think that much of what happens in human social dynamics is actually not that different from that we see in other animals,” Cheng added. “Comparative work that aims to understand the ways in which we are similar to and different from other primates is a crucial current and future direction for scientists.”

The study, “Prestige in a Large-Scale Social Group Predicts Longitudinal Changes in Testosterone“, was authored by Joey T. Cheng, Olga Kornienko, and Douglas A. Granger.