Winning doesn’t boost the testosterone levels of those high in attachment avoidance

Winning a competitive game does not appear to affect the testosterone levels of people who are avoidant in their relationships, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.

“How the attachment styles of people affects their social life is my main interest of research,” said study author Willem Verbeke of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Attachment theory describes how people form relationships with others. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments to others, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant.

“Most studies on attachment styles deal with how people develop relationships with each other. Our new study, however, looks at the role that attachment styles play when people compete amongst each other for status. I do not know of any study that looked at this phenomenon,” Verbeke explained.

“When studying competitive situations we prefer to use laboratory situations with high ecological validity, which means that people’s reputations are visibly at stake. For instance, we study how business students, who are by definition sensitive to status, participate in economic status games or contests. In such games, students participate in teams and have to seek how to gain status that always comes at the costs of another team’s status; hence they exert a lot of efforts to gain status.”

“In order to study these efforts we looked at the testosterone levels that the students produce in order to gain/defend status and also when they celebrate status gain or suffer status loss,” Verbeke said. “In general, one would expect that people who win the status contest would produce higher testosterone levels. But that might not be so evident as people’s attachment styles might have an effect on this.”

In the study, the researchers measured the testosterone levels of 224 Dutch students before and after they competed in an economic game. They found that avoidant-attached participants — who agreed with statements such as “I try to avoid getting too close to others” — did not have higher testosterone levels after winning.

On the other hand, anxious-attached participants — who agreed with statements such as “My desire to be close sometimes scares people away” — did have higher testosterone levels after winning.

“An important question then is why? We reason that avoidant-attached people do not value social rewards or social recognition, and thus winning or losing does not affect their testosterone levels,” Verbeke told PsyPost.

“While the results of this study might seem surprising, the results of this study actually have similarities with other studies we did. For instance, avoidant-attached people do not develop relationships with firms (like banks), are never satisfied about the services offered by a firm, and are not happy in life in general.”

Verbeke and his colleagues, Tsachi Ein-Dor and Pascal Vrticka, are now investigating the biological mechanisms behind attachment styles.

“We are looking at the epigenetic mechanisms that are responsible for the generation of attachment styles,” he explained. “Our first study shows that the glucocorticoid and oxytocin receptors of avoidant-attached people are methylated (a well-known epigenetic marker), which imply that they experience higher levels of stress because they cannot down regulate their stress (neither alone nor with other people). This was not the case for the anxious-attached people.”

“It seems that the avoidant-attached people are a special group of people in society with unique biological characteristics.”

The researchers are also interested in the evolutionary significance of avoidant-attached individuals.

“One speculation: while avoidant-attached people are not socially attached, their ability to be independent might have benefits for organizations,” Verbeke said. “In other words, as they are independent they might be more eager to engage in new or innovative adventures or take one jobs other people prefer not to do; think here about visiting new customers where rejection rates are high or take on jobs requiring long traveling trips. Currently we are exploring these questions in much depth.”

The study, “Exploring the Effect of Attachment Styles and Winning or Losing a Status Contest on Testosterone Levels“, was authored by Willem J. Verbeke, Frank Belschak, Tsachi Ein-Dor, Richard P. Bagozzi, and Michaéla Schippers.