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Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour


Both biosociological and psychological models, as well as animal research, suggest that testosterone has a key role in social interactions1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Evidence from animal studies in rodents shows that testosterone causes aggressive behaviour towards conspecifics7. Folk wisdom generalizes and adapts these findings to humans, suggesting that testosterone induces antisocial, egoistic, or even aggressive human behaviours. However, many researchers have questioned this folk hypothesis1,2,3,4,5,6, arguing that testosterone is primarily involved in status-related behaviours in challenging social interactions, but causal evidence that discriminates between these views is sparse. Here we show that the sublingual administration of a single dose of testosterone in women causes a substantial increase in fair bargaining behaviour, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions. However, subjects who believed that they received testosterone—regardless of whether they actually received it or not—behaved much more unfairly than those who believed that they were treated with placebo. Thus, the folk hypothesis seems to generate a strong negative association between subjects’ beliefs and the fairness of their offers, even though testosterone administration actually causes a substantial increase in the frequency of fair bargaining offers in our experiment.

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Figure 1: Sequence of events in the double-blind study with testosterone and placebo administration.
Figure 2: The proposers’ mean offers in the ultimatum game across treatments and beliefs.
Figure 3: Distribution of proposers’ offers conditional on their beliefs.

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This paper is part of the Research Priority Program ‘Foundations of Human Social Behaviour—Altruism versus Egoism’ at the University of Zurich. We also acknowledge support by the National Center of Competence in Affective Sciences, the Neurochoice Project of SystemsX, and the Swiss National Science Foundation. We thank F. Heusi for her research assistance during the conduct of the experiments.

Author Contributions C.E, E.F., M.H. and M.N. designed research; C.E. and R.S. conducted the experiment; C.E., E.F. and M.N. planned the data analysis; C.E. and M.N. performed data analysis; C.E., E.F., M.H. and M.N. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to C. Eisenegger or E. Fehr.

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Eisenegger, C., Naef, M., Snozzi, R. et al. Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour. Nature 463, 356–359 (2010).

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