January 31, 2012
Testosterone Cuts Female Cooperation

Your friends getting along too well? Feeling like the group is stuck in a rut of conformity? Testosterone could give you the edge you need to break away and strike out on your own. Testosterone makes us place more value on our own opinions. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on the quality of your opinions versus the opinions of those around you.

Testosterone makes us overvalue our own opinions at the expense of cooperation, research from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) has found. The findings may have implications for how group decisions are affected by dominant individuals.

Problem solving in groups can provide benefits over individual decisions as we are able to share our information and expertise. However, there is a tension between cooperation and self-oriented behaviour: whilst groups may benefit from a collective intelligence, collaborating too closely can easily lead to an uncritical groupthink ending in decisions that are bad for all.

Attempts to understand the biological mechanisms behind group decision making have tended to focus on the factors that promote cooperation. Research has shown that people given a boost of the hormone oxytocin tend to be cooperative. Now, in a study published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers have shown that the hormone testosterone has the opposite effect in other words, it makes people act less cooperatively and more egocentrically.

But will a lower willingness to cooperate always result in worse outcomes? Those with less need to go along with a group consensus have greater latitude to innovate in areas where the conventional wisdom is blocking development of different and much better approaches to problem.

Women can be made less cooperative with testosterone. One wonders whether the marginal impact on males would be as great.

Dr Nick Wright and colleagues at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL carried out a series of tests using seventeen pairs of female* volunteers who had previously never met. The test took place over two days, spaced a week apart. On one of the days, both volunteers in each pair were given a testosterone supplement; on the other day, they were given a placebo.

During the experiment, both women sat in the same room and viewed their own screen. Both individuals saw exactly the same thing. First, in each trial they were shown two images, one of which contained a high contrast target and their job was to decide individually which image contained the target. If their individual choices agreed, they received feedback and moved on to the next trial. However, if they disagreed then they were asked to collaborate and discuss with their partner to reach a joint decision. One of the pair then input this joint decision.

I wonder whether it makes sense to have more and less cooperative states of mind at different times of the day and week in order to get combined benefits of both cooperation and independent thinking.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 January 31 11:47 PM  Brain Sex Differences

Engineer-Poet said at February 1, 2012 6:34 PM:

Interesting to think that one of the major differences between individualistic vs. conformist societies may just be hormone levels.

juandos said at February 2, 2012 10:23 AM:

"Testosterone makes us place more value on our own opinions. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on the quality of your opinions versus the opinions of those around you"...

Its never a bad thing unless you're an ovulating man...

stan said at February 2, 2012 10:31 AM:

Wow. Out of such a tiny bit of data, such a big, confident finding.

Patrick said at February 2, 2012 1:11 PM:

Stan, I agree with you, but I still value my own opinion.

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