Causal attribution and psychobiological response to competition in young men

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Abstract

A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition.

Psychoneuroendocrine effects of competition have been widely accepted as a clear example of the relationship between androgens and aggressive/dominant behavior in humans. However, results about the effects of competitive outcomes are quite heterogeneous, suggesting that personal and contextual factors play a moderating role in this relationship. To further explore these dimensions, we aimed to examine (i) the effect of competition and its outcome on the psychobiological response to a laboratory competition in young men, and (ii) the moderating role of some cognitive dimensions such as causal attributions. To do so, we compared the responses of 56 healthy young men faced with two competitive tasks with different instructions. Twenty-eight men carried out a task whose instructions led subjects to think the outcome was due to their personal performance (“merit” task), whereas 28 other men faced a task whose outcome was attributable to luck (“chance” task). In both cases, outcome was manipulated by the experimenter. Salivary steroid hormones (testosterone and cortisol), cardiovascular variables (heart rate and blood pressure), and emotional state (mood and anxiety) were measured at different moments before, during and after both tasks. Our results did not support the “winner-loser effect” because no significant differences were found in the responses of winners and losers. However, significantly higher values on the testosterone and cardiovascular variables, along with slight decreases in positive mood, were associated with the merit-based competition, but not the chance-based condition. In addition, an exploratory factorial analysis grouped the response components into two patterns traditionally related to more active or more passive behaviors. Thus, our results suggest that the perception of contributing to the outcome is relevant in the psychobiological response to competition in men. Overall, our results reveal the importance of the appraisal of control and causal attribution in understanding human competitive interactions.

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