Testosterone and poker don’t mix, according to a new scientific study, but perhaps not in the way you might have thought.
Far from causing risk-taking behavior and encouraging wild bluffing, as most would expect, an excess of testosterone may actually foster risk-averse strategic thinking, according to the research by the Netherland’s University of Utrecht, which sought to determine the effect of the hormone on our decision-making processes.
Scientists widely agree that testosterone motivates individual animals to strive for social dominance.
It’s a phenomenon that has been observed through experiments conducted on everything from male and female rodents, wolves, cattle, hairy primates, and, of course, homo sapiens.
But what’s up for debate is the means by which this dominance is achieved in human societies.
Testosterone has a bad rep, and an excess of it has been blamed for everything from the Vikings foray south to pretty much every war since the beginning of time.
But science is divided on just how testosterone motivates humans to seek social dominance: is it via self-serving behaviors for individual gain, or via more socialist concepts, like”cooperative behaviors,” which the study refers to as “reputable status seeking.”
The problem is that because social rank and financial abundance are inextricably intertwined in most modern human societies, the part that testosterone plays in our social behavior is sometimes hard to filter from other equally significant elements.
Researchers at the Dutch university’s psychology department decided that a game of poker, and a handful of testosterone-laced candies, might get to the crux of the matter.
Using twenty female volunteers, the study gave half of the group these testosterone lozenges (does Viagra know about these, we wonder?), and the other half placebos.
The amped-up ladies were then invited to play a simplified form of heads-up poker, in which the decisions were fairly straight up.
Players simply made high or low bets, based on the strength of their hands. If both players bet high or low, they would each turn over their cards, and the winning hand would scoop the pot.
But if one player bet high and one low, the low bettor had the chance to call, or fold (no raising was apparently allowed in this scenario.)
Since calling might suggest a more cooperative, less confrontational stance (not to mention being the worst long-term strategy), you might think the non-hormone laden women would have gone that route, and expect the bluffers to be the testosterone-filled poker players.
But researchers found just the opposite to be true with their ladies game.
They attribute this to the callers being “reputable status seekers,” meaning those wishing to build their power on pristine reputation, who thus wouldn’t dream of being caught in a “cheat,” such as a bluff.
The researchers found that testosterone administration clearly caused players in the game to call more frequently and bluff much less, which suggests that the hormone does in indeed trigger cooperative behavior and is undeserved of its bad reputation.
So, if you buy all this (we’re not sure we do, go back to Exhibit A about Vikings and wars), women overall might actually be more aggressive poker players than men (assuming most don’t typically take male hormone stimulants), and some Viagra-popping politicians may actually want world peace and care about their reputations.
Watch out for unicorn crossings, too.