Important social changes often begin with a few individuals holding novel, unpopular opinions. However, holding such minority positions runs contrary to many psychosocial tendencies in humans that lead us to “go with the flow” and adopt or defend views held by the majority.
One reason for this is that minority positions are (perceived as) socially riskier. The payoff for being “the only one who knew better” is substantial, but if one’s position turns out to be wrong, it seems all the more foolish given that “everybody else knew better.” Majority positions, on the other hand, carry low social risk: whether right or wrong, you don’t stand out.
To better understand what leads certain individuals to adopt minority positions despite the social risks, researchers from the University of Hildesheim in Germany have been studying the role of testosterone as a “social hormone” in position-taking.
In their new study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, 250 adults (160 females, 90 males) were recruited to participate, ostensibly investigating the role of hormones in text processing. In actuality, individuals were presented with a persuasive message regarding, for example, the benefits of a new construction project and then told that either 15% or 85% of the local population was in its favor.
The researchers decided to look at basal testosterone (BT) levels, which have been associated with risk-taking, but also general immunity to social influence. While the researchers expected BT to predict a greater tendency to adopt minority positions compared to those with average or low BT, it was unclear going into the study which of the two effects of testosterone (risk-taking or disregard for social factors) mediated the relationship.
As expected, the results indicate that high BT individuals are more likely to adopt minority positions than low BT individuals. More importantly, however, the results indicate that individuals with high BT recognize (rather than disregard) the risks associated with a minority position, and opt for them anyway — boldly rolling the social dice, as it were.
If high BT individuals merely disregarded the social aspects of the decision, they should be no more or less inclined to agree with the majority position than their low BT counterparts. This was not the case, however — there was a clear association between higher BT and being more likely to take a minority position than low BT individuals.
The importance of minority positions for social change is hard to overstate. Upsetting the status quo is what leads to social (and political, financial, even scientific) change. While the present study serves as a preliminary investigation only—future researchers, as the authors note, will want to directly measure risk perception and/or manipulate testosterone levels—it nonetheless provides important evidence for the role of testosterone (and individuals as a catalyst of social change.
The article, “Basal Testosterone Renders Individuals More Receptive to Minority Positions”, was authored by M. Germar and A. Mojzisch.