Ever feel like you’re being watched? More specifically, ever think to yourself, “I probably should/shouldn’t do that,” because someone might see you? Well, here comes science to throw a spanner in the works. When one group of researchers applied testosterone gel to some men, it made them much less sensitive to being observed, and consequently less likely to behave with others’ judgment in mind.
How we’re likely to be perceived by those around us has a marked impact on our behavior, whether we consciously realize it or not. Actions we take that are likely to make others view us positively are called prosocial behaviors. Whether it’s donating blood or throwing a few dollars onto the collection plate at church, research suggests humans behave more prosocially when others can see us doing it.
This idea of altering our actions in response to being watched also has a snappy name: the “audience effect”.
A recent study set out to investigate whether testosterone could have an impact on this effect. It’s understood from previous research that higher testosterone levels are associated with behaviors that enhance social status. The study authors suggested that this could go one of two ways: either men with higher testosterone levels could be less concerned with the opinions of others, or they could be more sensitive to the audience effect as a means to enhance their reputation and social standing.
To test out their theories, the team, led by Hana H. Kutlikova at the University of Vienna, recruited 192 healthy men aged between 18 and 40. In small groups, the men were instructed to apply a dose of gel containing 150 milligrams of testosterone, or an equivalent amount of placebo gel. They rubbed the gel onto their own upper arms and shoulders using disposable gloves, and then waited around for two hours for it to take effect.
The men then had to perform a task, in which they were told they could earn rewards either for themselves or for a non-governmental organization (NGO) of their choice. Some of the men were randomly selected to perform the task on their own, while others were watched by two women who had been introduced to the men as “NGO representatives”.
At various points throughout the experimental period, saliva samples were taken to measure the participants’ testosterone levels. After completing the task, they were asked about their perception of being watched.
“The results show that testosterone diminishes the typical audience effect present in the placebo condition,” the authors explain in their paper. “We show that exogenous testosterone fully eliminated strategic, i.e., feigned, prosociality and thus decreased submission to audience expectations.”
In other words, the increased testosterone made the men less bothered about being watched, and less likely to change their behaviors to match what their observers might think they “should” do.
The authors point out some limitations to the study. They only included men due to sex differences in testosterone metabolism and a lack of data on how topical testosterone is processed in women, so more data is needed to know whether the results extend beyond males. In addition, it could be interesting to explore whether the audience effect changes depending on the gender or number of observers, since only female observers were used in this study.
While these results come down on the side of testosterone reducing the impact of the audience effect, other studies in the literature have produced contrasting results. It goes to show just how complex the effects of hormone fluctuations can be – it looks like there’s much more left for scientists to discover.
The study is published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
[H/T: ZME Science]