PARIS: New research from a team of French marketing academics and neuroscientists has found that male sex hormone testosterone increases men’s preference for status goods – compared to goods of similar perceived quality but seen as lower in status.
The paper and its findings are published in Nature Communications These results are the first to demonstrate a causal link between testosterone and rank-related consumer preference for status-enhancing goods.
Hilke Plassmann, the Insead Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience, says: “In the non-human species literature, some evidence highlights the link between testosterone, and rank-related behaviour. In humans, testosterone levels can situationally increase in contexts related to social rank, during competitions and after winning them or in the presence of an attractive mate.”
The findings have broad implications for luxury brands and policy makers.
The research reveals that consumption of status goods (luxury products or experiences) is partly driven by biological motives. The results are the first to demonstrate that testosterone causally influences rank-related consumer preferences and that the effect is driven by consumers’ aspiration to gain status rather than power or a general inclination for high quality goods.
The team investigated whether and when consumers’ desire for status goods is biologically rooted with a focus on the effect of testosterone on men’s desire for goods conveying status benefits such as luxury products.
Basic research shows there is a fundamental need to signal one’s rank across species. Higher social rank brings individuals several significant advantages such as mating opportunities or access to resources or social influence.
In human society, individuals often show their rank in the social hierarchy through economic consumption, in particular through possessing and displaying expensive, luxury brands. To what extent is consumers’ preference for such goods biologically motivated?
“In the non-human species literature, some evidence highlights the link between testosterone, and rank-related behaviour. In humans, testosterone levels can situationally increase in contexts related to social rank, during competitions and after winning them or in the presence of an attractive mate,” says Prof Plassmann.
“The results are the first to demonstrate that the effect is driven by consumers’ aspiration to gain status rather than power or a general inclination for high quality goods.”
To gain more insights on the role of testosterone on social rank and status associated behaviour, a study was conducted involving 243 men of similar age and socio-economic background. Randomly, half of them received a single dose of testosterone that mimicked a testosterone spike that could occur in an everyday situation causing an increased testosterone level; the other half received a placebo treatment. All subjects then participated in two tasks.
In the first one, they were asked to choose between pairs of brands. The pairs were composed of brands that were all pretested to have polarised social rank associations but did not differ in perceived quality. That is, one brand was seen to lift its owner much higher in the social hierarchy (eg, Calvin Klein) than the other (Levi’s).
For each pair, participants were asked: which brand do you prefer and to what extent? on 10-point scale anchored with each brand. The findings reveal that men who received the testosterone doses showed a higher preference for the status (positional) goods associated with higher social rank (such as a luxury brand). This suggests a causal link between testosterone and rank-related consumer preferences.
The second task meant to investigate the effect of testosterone on the two distinct routes to high social rank – status and power. While status refers to the respect in the eyes of others, power comes from one’s control of a valued resources. The research team used six different product categories from coffee machines to luxury cars and created three different framings for each product category, with a similar wording but emphasising the target product in terms of its status benefits, power benefits or high quality.
For example, the mock ads variously described a Mont Blanc pen as “the internationally recognised symbol among the influential” (status), “mightier than the sword” (power) “an instrument of persistence and durability” (quality).
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About Insead, The Business School for the World
As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, Insead brings together people, cultures and ideas to change lives and to transform organisations. A global perspective and cultural diversity are reflected in all aspects of its research and teaching.
With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and the Middle East (Abu Dhabi), Insead’s business education and research spans three continents. Insead participates in academic partnerships with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University near Chicago; the Johns Hopkins University/SAIS in Washington DC and the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York; and MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In Asia, Insead partners with School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.
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