Testosterone disrupts human collaboration

Humans are incredibly successful collaborators, but we all know from experience that some people work better in teams than others. Anybody who has sought or given a reference for an employee knows that the ability to work collaboratively is probably the most sought-after property in most job searches. And being able to work collaboratively requires an ability to put aside one’s own narrow ambition in order to ensure the best outcome for the group or team.

For some time, researchers have suggested that the bad-boy of human hormones – testosterone – reduces an individual’s tendency to be a good collaborator. Testosterone has a great many functions, but many of them involve motivating us to dominate others or at least compete against them. The link between testosterone and cooperation may be because testosterone diminishes and individual’s motivation or ability to collaborate, but it might just as easily come through other effects that testosterone has on motivation and performance in domains only slightly related to collaboration.

Which is why I enjoyed a paper recently published online by Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, series B. (Testosterone disrupts human collaboration by increasing egocentric choices, by Nicholas D. Wright and colleagues at University College London, London School of Economics and Aarhus University, Denmark.

By administering testosterone to some subjects, and a placebo to others, and then tracking the effect of collaboration on a problem-solving task, they showed that testosterone markedly reduced subjects’ collaborative performance. That happened because, according to the authors,

“testosterone engendered more egocentric choices, manifest in an overweighting of one’s own relative to others’ judgements during joint decision-making.”

We often think only of men when considering the effects of testosterone on behaviour, but many of the functions of testosterone are shared in women. All the subjects in this study were women. It’s hard, when thinking about hormones and behaviour not to slip into stereotypes, but the tendency of the testosterone-supplemented women to overweight their own judgments and discount those of their collaborators sounds awfully familiar.


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Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

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