Traditional theories propose that testosterone should increase dominance and other status-seeking behaviors, but empirical support has been inconsistent. The present research tested the hypothesis that testosterone's effect on dominance depends on cortisol, a glucocorticoid hormone implicated in psychological stress and social avoidance. In the domains of leadership (Study 1, mixed-sex sample) and competition (Study 2, male-only sample), testosterone was positively related to dominance, but only in individuals with low cortisol. In individuals with high cortisol, the relation between testosterone and dominance was blocked (Study 1) or reversed (Study 2). Study 2 further showed that these hormonal effects on dominance were especially likely to occur after social threat (social defeat). The present studies provide the first empirical support for the claim that the neuroendocrine reproductive (HPG) and stress (HPA) axes interact to regulate dominance. Because dominance is related to gaining and maintaining high status positions in social hierarchies, the findings suggest that only when cortisol is low should higher testosterone encourage higher status. When cortisol is high, higher testosterone may actually decrease dominance and in turn motivate lower status.
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