If a man reckons he’s good, his hormones tell him he’s better


Even in a rigged competition, men think winning makes them more attractive. Fiona McMillan reports.


Bing Crosby, in 1934, giving his testosterone and vanity levels a boost.
Bing Crosby, in 1934, giving his testosterone and vanity levels a boost.
Otto Dyar via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

New research suggests that a man’s belief that he’s beaten another man in competition is enough to slightly boost his testosterone levels and increase his sense of attractiveness.

The study, published in the journal Human Nature, shows how beliefs about social status can influence male hormonal fluctuations and affect how they perceive themselves as potential mates.

A number of studies have shown that winning a sports competition raises testosterone levels in men. However, it wasn’t known if these changes are due to the physical act of winning or losing, or if perception plays a more critical role.

To find out, biological anthropologists at the University of Cambridge in the UK had 38 heterosexual male athletes compete with each other on rowing machines. Unbeknownst to the participants, the competition was rigged so that winners were declared randomly, regardless of who had really won.

Before and after the competition, the researchers measured hormone levels in the participants’ saliva, and administered questionnaires to determine self-esteem, self-perceived attractiveness, and confidence in approaching attractive women.

The men who thought they’d won showed an average increase in testosterone of around 5%, while testosterone levels decreased by about 7% in men who believed they’d lost.

The perceived “losers” went easy on themselves, showing no significant difference in their post-race self-esteem or their self-assessed value as a mate. There was also no change in their confidence approaching women.

However, for those who thought themselves victorious, their self-esteem, self-perceived value as a mate, as well as their likelihood of approaching attractive women all showed slight but significant increases over their pre-race values.

“Our results show that both testosterone and its corresponding psychological effects can fluctuate quickly and opportunistically, shifting towards short-term mating in response to a perceived change in status that may increase mating value,” says lead author Daniel Longman.

These are small adjustments, enough to show how the body adapts quickly to changes in perceived circumstance, but are by no means deterministic.

As Longman explains, “Male physiology may shift to take advantage of certain situations, but ultimately a man's decisions are up to him.”

F mcmillan headshot.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Fiona McMillan a science communicator with a background in in physics, biophysics, and structural biology. She was awarded runner up for the 2016 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.
  1. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12110-018-9323-5
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