A new study showed that testosterone, a male hormone, had a measurable effect on a man’s preference for luxury brands which are considered to be status symbols.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that a man with a higher
level of testosterone in his body will be more likely than a man with lower testosterone levels to prefer
a pair of Calvin Klein jeans over a pair of Levi’s.
According to Colin Camerer, a Caltech professor of behavioural economics, the study’s co-author, one of the
primary functions of testosterone is to generate both status-seeking and status-protecting behaviours.
“In the animal kingdom, testosterone promotes aggression, but the aggression is in service of status,” said
“A lot of human behaviours are repurposed behaviours seen in our primate relatives. So, here, we’re replacing
physical aggression with a sort of consumer aggression.”
The study got to the biological heart of what we call conspicuous consumption, the human practice of acquiring
and showing off luxury goods and services to increase one’s social status.
Camerer likened the costs of this behaviour to the cost and weight of the elaborate tails carried around by
“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,” said Camerer.
The study included 243 male volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55 who were randomly selected to receive
a dose of testosterone gel or placebo gel that would absorb through their skin.
They were sent home and asked to return to the lab about four hours later, when testosterone levels in
their blood would be near peak.
Upon returning, they participated in tasks designed to gauge their preferences for different types of goods.
The first task presented participants with a 10-point scale that had a brand associated with high social
status at one end and a brand with lower social status but otherwise equivalent quality at the other end.
They were asked to move a slider toward the brand they preferred with the slider’s proximity to the brand
indicating how strong their preference was.
The data the researchers collected during this task showed that the men who received a dose of testosterone
had a stronger preference for the luxury brands than did the men who received the placebo.
The second task was designed to tease apart testosterone’s effect on the desire for luxury good from other
potential effects, like an increased desire for high-quality goods or for goods that evoked a sense of power.
The task presented the study participants with a series of ads for consumer goods such as a car, a pair of
sunglasses, or a coffee machine.
The participants 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 one
The data from this task showed that men who received a dose of testosterone had a stronger preference for
luxury goods than men who received the placebo.
There was no corresponding increase in preference for goods that were advertised as powerful or higher in quality.
“In our closest animal kin, males spend a lot of time and energy fighting to establish dominance.
“We do, too, but our weapons are what we wear, drive, and live in rather than claws, fists, and muscles,”
The results are the first to demonstrate that testosterone causally influences rank-related consumer
preferences and that the effect is driven by consumers’ aspiration to gain status rather than power
or a general inclination for high quality goods.
The findings may be useful for generating new hypotheses regarding contexts where positional (status)
consumption occurs, and also have broad implication for luxury brands and policymakers