Sorry, Bruh, Testosterone Isn’t Responsible For Conspicuous Consumption


In 2009, The Daily Beast ran an article about Nicholas Cage’s spending in light of a lawsuit he brought against his former money manager, Samuel J. Levin. In it, the writer detailed Cage’s penchant for frittering away his cash, and it was riveting. He had purchased a dozen homes, including more than one genuine mansion and a castle; 18 motorcycles; 30 cars; a dinosaur skull; two islands; and the Shah of Iran’s Lamborghini. Now, maybe he loved every single one of those things, but the associated social status had to play a role. That’s called conspicuous consumption, and past studies have believed testosterone played a role in the drive to achieve status through purchasing. But, new research published in the journal Scientific Reports contradicts this.

Yin Wu, While a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, collaborated with researchers from London Business School, University of Oxford, and University of Vienna to study the impact of testosterone levels and social status on conspicuous consumption. A group of 166 participants were invited to play the game Tetris. Though they thought they were competing against one another, they were actually randomly identified as winners and losers. Then, they were asked how much they would be willing to pay for luxe items. Consistently, winners were willing to pay more for items than losers were.

Next, they were asked to assign positive and negative words to the items. The idea is that this activity allows researchers to evaluate the implicit value being assigned to goods. The results supported the finding that winners felt high end items held greater value than losers did. Throughout, participants’ testosterone levels were tested. It was expected winner would have a bump in the level and losers would have a dip, but the Tetris games and their outcome had zero effect on testosterone.

So, instead of linking conspicuous consumption to hormones, researchers argue that entitlement is one way winning leads to social status through spending. Tetris winners may have felt they were more deserving of luxury goods because they were superior.

“Social competition is pervasive in our daily life — whether it is in terms of fighting for the top job, competing for friends and popularity or even growing up in a wealthy, successful family,” says Dr Wu. “Our study demonstrates that winning a competition leads people to prefer high-status products, possibly through an increased feeling of entitlement or deservingness.”