Hormonal underpinnings of status conflict: Testosterone and cortisol are related to decisions and satisfaction in the hawk-dove game

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A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition.Testosterone is theorized to influence status-seeking behaviors such as social dominance and competitive behavior, but supporting evidence is mixed. The present study tested the roles of testosterone and cortisol in the hawk-dove game, a dyadic economic decision-making paradigm in which earnings depend on one's own and the other player's choices. If one person selects the hawk strategy and the other person selects the dove strategy, the player who selected hawk attains a greater financial pay-off (status differentiation). The worst financial outcome occurs when both players choose the hawk strategy (status confrontation). Ninety-eight undergraduate students (42 men) provided saliva samples and played ten rounds of the hawk-dove game with another same-sex participant. In support of the hypothesis that testosterone is related to status concern, individuals higher in basal testosterone made more hawk decisions — decisions that harmed the other player. Acute decreases in cortisol were also associated with more hawk decisions. There was some empirical support for the dual-hormone hypothesis as well: basal testosterone was positively related to satisfaction in the game among low basal-cortisol individuals but not among high basal-cortisol individuals. There were no significant sex differences in these hormonal effects. The present findings align with theories of hormones and status-seeking behavior at the individual level, but they also open up new avenues for research on hormone profiles at the collective level. Our results suggest that the presence of two or more high-testosterone members increases the likelihood of status confrontations over a limited resource that can undermine collective outcomes.HighlightsParticipants played ten rounds of the hawk-dove game.Players can select a dominance (hawk) or deference (dove) strategy in each round.Basal testosterone was positively related to the number of hawk decisions.Cortisol change was negatively related to the number of hawk decisions.Basal testosterone and basal cortisol jointly predicted satisfaction in the game.

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