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For Men, Testosterone May Drive Luxury Purchases
A new study finds that testosterone level spikes at pivotal life moments may be a factor in high-roller spending.
By Fran Kritz
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July 5, 2019
Men who buy brand name luxury goods may simply be responding to testosterone bursts, according to a new study.
The study, published this week inNature Communications,was conducted by researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Western Ontario, and ZRT Laboratory, a diagnostic lab.
Related: Testosterone and Men's Health and Wellness
How Testosterone Bursts Were Observed
The researchers enrolled 243 male volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55 who were randomly selected to receive a dose of testosterone gel or placebo gel on their chests. They returned to the research site about four hours later when testosterone levels would be near their peak and took tests to measure their preference for different consumer goods.
Related:Where Men Spend Their Childhood Determines Testosterone Level, Study Says
Researchers Isolated Brand Preferences in the Test Subjects
For the first test, each participant got a 10-point scale that had the name of a status consumer brand item at one end and the name of an item with a lower social status at the other. All the participants were asked to move a slider toward the brand they preferred to show how strong their preference for either item was.
The test results showed that the men who received a dose of testosterone had a stronger preference for the luxury brands than men who got the placebo.
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Ads Stressing Quality, Luxury, and Power Were Linked to Testosterone Level
For the second test, the participants saw a series of consumer ads for goods, such as a pair of pants, a car, and a pair of sunglasses. They were randomly presented with one of three versions of an advertisement for each item, with each version of the ad emphasizing either the item's quality, luxuriousness, or power. After reviewing the ad, they were asked to rate their attitude toward that item on a scale of 1 to 10.
The researchers found that the men who had received a dose of testosterone had a stronger preference for luxury goods than men who had received the placebo, but there was no increase in preference in the testosterone group for goods that were advertised as powerful or higher in quality.
Related:Deconstructing Sex Drive: What Your Libido Says About Your Health
When Do Testosterone Levels Spike Outside the Research Lab?
While the testosterone boosts in the study were artificial, in real life, according to the researchers, men get natural boosts of testosterone after certain events, including sports events; when seeing attractive potential mates; and during significant life events, such as graduation and marriage. “Our results suggest that in such contexts, male consumers might … find status-related brand communications more appealing,” say the researchers.
More Studies on Testosterone Levels Are Needed
In an interview withPenn Today,the daily newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania, Gideon Nave, PhD, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton, said that although their study findings will have to be reproduced, his team used a sample size of study participants that was about 4 or 5 times larger than before, “so we have more evidence than we’ve ever had that testosterone is affecting these preferences.”
Related: Later Menopause Linked to Better Memory, Study Shows
The Social Role of Testosterone Levels in Men
Colin Camerer, PhD, a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech and one of the study’s authors, says that one of the primary functions of testosterone is to generate both status-seeking and status-protecting behaviors. “In the animal kingdom, testosterone promotes aggression, but the aggression is in service of status," he says. "A lot of human behaviors are repurposed behaviors seen in our primate relatives. So, here, we're replacing physical aggression with a sort of consumer aggression."
Are Status Symbols Something Like Showy Peacock Tails?
Dr. Camerer compared the male behavior linked to testosterone to the cost and weight of the elaborate tails carried around by male peacocks. "If it didn't need to attract mates, a peacock would be better off without its tail. It would be easier for the peacock to escape from predators and easier for it to find food if it wasn't carrying that tail around," he says. "In biology, that's known as costly signaling. A human male would probably be better off not spending 0,000 on a car, but by buying that car, he's showing people that he's wealthy enough that he can."
The Social Implications of Luxury Spending
The authors say one reason the study is important is because testosterone-fueled purchases can keep people in poverty and give them less money to spend on more necessary purchases, such as healthcare and education.
When asked about whether knowing that the driver of their actions was, at least in part, biologic could cause the men to change their testosterone-driver behavior, Dr. Nave says no: Biologic drivers have typically not been successful for, say, stopping smoking or other addictions.
A Man’s Biology May Influence His Decision-Making
But Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College who specializes in addiction medicine, says, “This study adds to research we already have that shows that biology, in addition to environment, culture, and other factors, can be important in the decisions we make.” Dr. Rosenberg, the author of the book Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat, says the reason to know what drives you is so instead of simply saying, "This is my inner child speaking," you can question how you feel, especially if that is driving bad decisions. In fact, learning how your biology influences you is why it is beneficial for people to see a therapist or psychiatrist, adds Rosenberg. Talk therapy can help people learn about what is behind their actions and have some control over those actions, he says.
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