A new study found that men given doses of testosterone were more likely to rely on snap judgments during a brain-teaser test rather than rely on cognitive reflection; that is, stopping to consider whether their gut reaction to something is correct.
“What we found was the testosterone group was quicker to make snap judgments on brain teasers where your initial guess is usually wrong,” said Dr. Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
“The testosterone is either inhibiting the process of mentally checking your work or increasing the intuitive feeling that ‘I’m definitely right.'”
The study involved 243 males who were randomly selected to receive a dose of testosterone gel or placebo gel before taking a cognitive reflection test. A math task was also given to control for participant engagement, motivation level, and basic math skills.
The questions included on the cognitive reflection test were similar to the following: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
For many people, the first answer that comes to mind is that the ball costs 10 cents, but that answer is incorrect because then the bat would cost only 90 cents more than the ball. The correct answer is that the ball costs five cents and the bat costs $1.05.
A person prone to relying on their gut instincts would be more likely to accept their first answer of 10 cents. However, another person might realize their initial mistake through cognitive reflection and come up with the correct answer.
Participants were given as much time as they needed to complete the questions and were offered one dollar for each correct answer and an additional tow dollars if they answered all the questions correctly.
The results show that the group that received testosterone scored significantly lower than the group that received the placebo, on average answering 20 percent fewer questions correctly.
The men given testosterone also “gave incorrect answers more quickly, and correct answers more slowly than the placebo group,” the authors write. The same effect was not seen in the results of the basic math tests administered to both groups.
The researchers believe that this phenomenon can be linked to testosterone’s effect of increasing confidence in humans. Testosterone is thought to generally enhance the male drive for social status, and recent studies have shown that confidence enhances status.
“We think it works through confidence enhancement. If you’re more confident, you’ll feel like you’re right and will not have enough self-doubt to correct mistakes,” Camerer says.
Camerer says the new findings raise questions about the potential pitfalls of the growing testosterone-replacement therapy industry, which mainly targets the declining sex drive experienced by many middle-aged men.
“If men want more testosterone to increase sex drive, are there other effects? Do these men become too mentally bold and thinking they know things they don’t?”
The study was conducted by researchers from Caltech, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Western University of Health Sciences and ZRT Laboratory in Oregon, and is published in the journal Psychological Science.