Science Watch

It's good to be the king, right? Well, not necessarily. Some people thrive in high-status positions, but others don't-and according to an article in the June Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 6)-that may be because status-seekers have a higher baseline level of testosterone than other people.

In the study, University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Robert Josephs, PhD, and his colleagues put people into artificial "high-status" and "low-status" positions by having them compete in a rigged set of tasks in the lab. They found that people with high testosterone levels got stressed out and performed worse on cognitive tests when they were forced into low-status positions. People with low testosterone levels, though, actually performed better in the low-status position than in the high-status one.

"We were surprised," says Josephs. "Evolutionary theory would suggest that everyone craves high status because high status is associated with reproductive success. So we were expecting that, when given the opportunity to lead or be in a position of power, everyone would either be indifferent or jump at it."

Instead, it appears that a sizeable number of low-testosterone people actually seem to prefer to avoid leadership roles, he says.

Artificial power

In the study, Josephs and his colleagues tested 92 undergraduates who came to the lab in same-sex pairs. Each participant first gave a saliva sample so that the researchers could test testosterone levels. Then, the experimenter told the participants that they would be taking three intelligence tests. The first test, however, was really a status manipulation: Participants had to complete a number-ordering task, but one person's task was, unbeknownst to each participant pair, much longer than the other person's. Each participant had to raise a hand when he or she completed the test, so that both participants would know who finished first.

Next, both the person assigned the "dominant" status (the one who got the easy version of the number-ordering task and so finished first) and the person assigned the "submissive" status (the one who got the difficult version of the task) took a test that was really a measure of implicit status concerns. They solved a series of word-search puzzles in which they had to find the names of professions of varying status, such as lawyer, paralegal, doctor, hygienist, president and secretary.

Finally, both participants completed a 20-question portion of the analytic section of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which measures cognitive functioning. To motivate participants to do well on all the tests, the experimenter told them that their scores on each would be combined into a final score to see who won or lost.

The researchers found that the high-testosterone men and women-those who scored in the upper third of testosterone levels for their gender-scored better on the GRE when they were in the high-status condition than in the low-status condition (10.67 questions correct versus 6.75 questions correct). But the low-testosterone subjects-those in the bottom third of testosterone levels for their gender-scored worse when placed in the high-status condition than in the low-status condition (7.25 correct versus 9.25 correct).

Participants also paid more attention to status-they found more of the status-related words in the word-search task-when their testosterone levels and status levels were mismatched. And in a second experiment in the study, the researchers monitored participants' heart rate-a measure of stress-and found that heart rate also increased when testosterone and status were mismatched: Low-testosterone people had higher heart rates when placed in the high-status position, and high-testosterone people had higher heart rates when place in the low-status position.

Interestingly, though, people seem largely unaware of their own status preferences. In their final experiment in the study, the researchers asked each participant to fill out a questionnaire about his or her desire for dominance and power before completing the tests. They found these self-reports didn't do nearly as good a job at predicting the participants' reactions to status position as the saliva testosterone levels did.

Evolution and cooperation

Evolutionary psychologist Mark Van Vugt, PhD, of the University of Kent in England, says that the new study is both surprising and clever. "We've always assumed that because status gives so many benefits, everyone would strive for status to the same degree," he says.

And, says Josephs, there hasn't been much research before this on low-status, submissive individuals-either in the human or the animal world.

"The spotlight and focus of the literature is on high status," he says. "So the picture that's emerged is that you have these dominance battles among alpha males, with subordinates hugging the walls waiting to get table scraps but not in any way players in the drama."

The new research, Josephs says, suggests that low-testosterone individuals who are comfortable in low-status positions also play an important evolutionary role.

Not everyone can be a leader, and if everyone were constantly fighting for the few available leadership positions, then society wouldn't work nearly as well. From a societal perspective it makes sense, he says, for some people to function better as followers.

"You might think, 'I'd like to be on the throne wearing the crown,' but not everyone has the nervous system to deal with that," says Josephs. "People who are low in testosterone and put in subordinate positions tend to be relaxed and comfortable. They function well."

Van Vugt agrees that, evolutionarily speaking, the results may make sense: "Sometimes it might actually be safer for you to be a low-status individual, so that you don't have to always be in competition with other people," he says.

Also, Josephs points out, status mismatch may be a uniquely human experience. In the animal world creatures are rarely thrust into positions of power unwillingly: Alpha males fight their way to the top. But in the human world accidents of birth, fortune or intelligence can move people who might prefer to remain in the shadows into the spotlight.

In future studies, Josephs and his colleagues may examine whether there are any gender differences in how testosterone affects status-seeking.