Matching Decisions to Decision-Makers: via Our Testosterone Levels - Ideas for Leaders
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Matching Decisions to Decision-Makers: via Our Testosterone Levels

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Hormones can play a role in decision-making, particularly testosterone, which when present in high levels can lead to more utilitarian decisions being made. In a study where participants were made to answer philosophical questions involving morality, high-testosterone individuals were consistently more willing to endorse a difficult decision, if there was some ‘greater good’ involved. On the other hand, this made them more likely to violate a moral norm in doing so. So can we match decisions to decision-makers based on an individual’s chemical make-up?


Does testosterone play a role in moral decision-making? A study of 117 graduate students at Columbia University looks to find the answer. They set out to see if individuals high in testosterone (measured using saliva samples) are more likely to make utilitarian decisions, specifically when doing so involves acts of aggression and social cost.

Participants were tested using philosophy’s ‘trolley problem’, responding with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ after making judgments on two dilemmas set around a switch and a footbridge:

  • The switch dilemma: A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that alternative track. Do you flip the switch?
  • The footbridge dilemma: As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very heavy man next to you and your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Do you push the man?

In line with previous findings and their hypothesis, 105 of the 117 participants responded in a utilitarian manner to the switch dilemma, and said ‘yes’, they would flip the switch sacrificing one life to save five. The expected reverse effect was found for the footbridge dilemma, with 78 of the participants abandoning the utilitarian approach and saying ‘no’, they would not push the man to save five others.

Those participants who were always willing to endorse trading one life to save five (whom we can refer to as ‘intransigent utilitarians’) were significantly higher in testosterone than the others, who answered ‘yes’ to the first dilemma but ‘no’ to the second. Those that refrained from getting involved in either case had the lowest levels of testosterone.


High-testosterone individuals appear willing to endorse tough and costly decisions provided they promote the greater good. Thus, we can argue, the intransigent utilitarianism of high-testosterone individuals reflects diminished sensitivity to the affect-eliciting properties of the footbridge dilemma. These findings of diminished emotional responsiveness suggest that individuals high in testosterone are able - and perhaps likely - to approach decision making in a manner that is divorced from negative affect and disproportionately focused on outcome.

Thus where ‘insensitivity’ to more immediate consequences of a decision are required in order to succeed, companies may do better by utilizing their high-testosterone decision-makers. These individuals’ ‘heightened focus’ on outcomes and disregard for the cost of pursuit may explain why they also have more success on, for example, Wall Street and similar contexts.

At the same time, these individuals may approach moral decisions in a less affective manner. As such, in cases where the outcome of a decision may violate a strong moral norm, they would not be best suited to make that decision.

More research on how biological systems in general influence decision-making is needed, particularly because of the potential limitations of this study; for example, testosterone interacts with a number of other hormones but it was the only one measured here.



Decision making and testosterone: When the ends justify the means. Dana R. Carney & Malia F. Mason. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology (July 2010).


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Idea conceived

July 1, 2010

Idea posted

Jan 2013
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