Young men with high testosterone levels are more willing to engage in unethical behavior than men with lower testosterone levels, but only in response to intrasexually competitive situations, according to new research published in the British Journal of Psychology. The findings also provide initial evidence that the emotion of anger mediates this relationship.
Study authors Marcelo Vinhal Nepomuceno and Eric Stenstrom argue that research on unethical behavior has mostly overlooked physiological variables, such as hormones, that might play a role. Testosterone has been linked with status seeking among men, and some research has indicated that status seeking can motivate unethical behavior.
“When trying to explain behavior, most people would think of cognitive forces or cultural forces that might impact one’s behavior. However, I think it’s important to remember that humans are also biological beings. Thus, studying how hormones impact behavior reminds us that part of our behavior might be explained by our physiology,” explained Nepomuceno, an associate professor at HEC Montréal.
The researchers believed that the role of testosterone in unethical behavior may be particularly important during intrasexual competition, meaning competing against others of the same sex to attract a mate.
In their study, Nepomuceno and Stenstrom collected saliva samples from 83 male and 91 female university students to test testosterone levels. “The study measures baseline circulating testosterone. That is, the level that testosterone that participants have circulating in their bodies when in rest,” Nepomuceno said.
The participants were then assigned to one of two conditions. Participants in the control condition were asked to describe when they did laundry for the last time. Participants in the experiment condition were asked to recall and describe how they felt when they were romantically interested in someone of the opposite sex who was also being pursued by another person. (Those who had not personally experienced this situation were asked to describe how they would feel if it were to occur.)
The participants then completed a questionnaire that measured their willingness to engage in risky unethical behaviors. The questionnaire included items such as “Taking some questionable deductions on your income tax return” and “Having an affair with a married man/woman.”
The researchers found that testosterone levels were positively associated with the willingness to engage in unethical behaviors, but only among men in the intrasexual competition condition. Testosterone levels were not associated with the willingness to engage in unethical behaviors for men in the control condition, or for women in either condition.
Nepomuceno and Stenstrom also used a text analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to analyze the emotional content of the participants’ written responses. They found that testosterone was positively associated with the usage of anger-related words for men but not women. The usage of anger-related words was also linked to unethical behavioral intentions among men in the intrasexual competition condition.
“Men with high testosterone are more likely to behave unethically if they think about intrasexual competition,” Nepomuceno told PsyPost. “Women with high testosterone do not behave more unethically if competing against women to attract men. In addition, our results show that anger may mediate the effect in part, such that high testosterone men become angrier and then motivated to engage in unethical behaviors.”
“Past research found that testosterone is associated with the motivation to obtain status. So, our findings suggest that high testosterone men appear to perceive unethical behaviors as a form of obtaining social status. In other words, when competing against other men to attract women, high testosterone men become angry and behave unethically to gain status and increase the likelihood of attracting women.”
The researchers said that the findings also highlight the importance of considering how physiological factors influence unethical behavior. “There’s been researching demonstrating direct associations between testosterone and a multitude of behaviors, including consumption,” Nepomuceno said. “I believe future research should look at contextual and personality factors that may interact with one’s testosterone to impact behavior.”
The study, “The association between testosterone and unethical behaviours, and the moderating role of intrasexual competition“, was published August 7, 2021.