Why testosterone drives you to buy that sports car

A new study demonstrates why ads featuring women and champions are so successful, particularly with men, writes Olivier Oullier

FILE: An employee checks the rear of an Aston Martin DB11 luxury automobile in the quality inspection area at Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd.'s manufacturing and assembly plant in Gaydon, U.K., on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Aston Martin is targeting a valuation of as much as 5 billion pounds ($6.8 billion) in a potential initial public offering of the British sports car maker, according to people familiar with the matter. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Whoever has read Brett Easton Ellis's 1991 bestselling novel American Psycho will know that the book is packed with dozens of descriptions of what the characters are wearing. In consumer-driven industries, such products are called positional goods because the product itself and its brand convey a certain social status for their owners. Products such as luxury watches or cars belong in this category.

Because of the aggressive social behaviour and violent nature of the main character, Patrick Bateman – a Wall Street businessman-turned-serial killer – many critics have deemed American Psycho decadent and testosterone-fuelled. Such a reading of the book was based on the popular belief that a strong correlation exists between testosterone levels and aggressive male behaviour.

But women also produce testosterone, albeit in a lower concentration than men. Studies performed on both genders revealed that increasing testosterone levels artificially thanks to pharmacology can lead individuals to be more generous, honest and co-operative in economic exchanges and even trigger non-aggressive behaviour promoting social cohesion.

Despite that scientific evidence, associating American Psycho with testosterone is not necessarily a mistake, as a study published last month in Nature Communications suggests.

A group of researchers, led by Gideon Nave at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, investigated the role of testosterone in seeking an improvement in perceived social status by asking consumers to choose between different clothing brands and products.

Given that many luxury brands are purchased not because of their quality but to display one’s social status – given their price and scarcity – the researchers designed and conducted an experiment in which they manipulated the level of testosterone in men to better understand its role in consumer preferences.


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Their goal was to test the effect of testosterone on the preference for brands perceived as having a higher social rank. They also examined whether increasing the testosterone levels would lead consumers to prefer products perceived as status-enhancing, power-enhancing or high in quality.

In order to categorise the brands, a pre-test was conducted by a group of students to rate clothing brands on their perceived quality, level of social status and of power. Based on these ratings, pairs composed of one high-end (Armani, Lacoste) and one relatively lower social ranking brand (North Face, Levi’s) were generated for participants in the experiment to reveal their preference.

More than 200 male participants were divided in two groups and were either administered testosterone or given a placebo. To monitor the variations of testosterone in all participants, saliva samples were collected regularly.

The results of the experiment are very clear. Administering testosterone significantly increased the preference of men for status brands. In other words, the more testosterone in the body, the more likely men were to choose luxury brands. Such an effect was not observed in the placebo group.

Furthermore, the group that received testosterone displayed more positive attitudes towards positional goods – products that had been described as status-enhancing – but not towards those that were presented as power-enhancing or higher in quality.

Based on these results, the luxury industry should therefore aim at increasing the level of testosterone in male consumers. However, unlike in the experiment, where it was allowed under certain restricted and controlled conditions, testosterone cannot be artificially administered for consumer purposes. But there are other tactics to increase its level.

As indicated by the authors of the study, “testosterone levels can situationally increase in contexts related to social rank and male reproductive behaviour during competitions and after winning them, in the presence of an attractive mate and even following acts of conspicuous consumption, such as driving a sports car”.

This explains, at least partially, why for so many decades communication campaigns and ads targeting male consumers contained beautiful women or champions promoting their products – and why they were successful. It is also one of the reasons why, in an car dealership, clients are offered a test drive before buying the car is discussed, in the vehicle itself.

It is a strategy that works particularly well on men, given that driving cars, especially sport cars, is likely to have increased their testosterone level.

Hormones are a powerful way for the brain to change the way our bodies and minds function. The good news is that the increase in testosterone that might result from reading American Psycho is more likely to entice male readers into buying designer suits and luxury watches than engaging in a fight.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ