Poker Competitions Affect Men’s Testosterone Levels

Male-male competition and its effects on testosterone.

Posted Mar 19, 2012

Testosterone (T) has been studied both as a behavioral precursor as well as an outcome. For example, if one were to establish that men who have higher basal T levels are more likely to be physically aggressive, this would be an instance of T serving as an antecedent to a behavior of interest. On the other hand, studies that explore what happens to T levels subsequent to competitive wins/losses constitute the classic example of T as an outcome. On a related note, some readers might recall one of my early posts wherein I discussed a study conducted with one of my former graduate students (John Vongas) on the effects of conspicuous consumption (driving a Porsche) on men's T levels (see here).

In today's post, I describe findings from a paper by Eric T. Steiner, Kimberly A. Barchard, Marta Meana, Freidun Hadi, and Peter B. Gray published in 2010 in Current Psychology. Steiner et al. explored what happens to men's T levels when pitted in pairs to play a poker game against one another. Note that players of roughly equal expertise were paired with one another. As I describe in my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Gift Giving, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (p. 240), poker players are overwhelmingly male. In my analysis of the top 250 professional poker players, only four were women. Hence, it is perhaps understandable that Steiner et al. restricted their study to male participants. As a means of measuring fluctuating levels of T, the researchers collected salivary assays on three occasions: shortly before the game started; five minutes after it ended; and twenty minutes after it ended. The objective was to explore how T responds to competition, to the outcome of a competition, and whether it is short lasting (hence the two post-game measurements). Several controls were taken into account including the time of the day that the experiment was conducted (as T levels change across the diurnal cycle), and the restriction of food intake one hour prior to the experiment (as food could taint the collected saliva).

The results were somewhat surprising in that T fluctuations were not associated with the outcome of the game (perhaps because there were minimal consequences of winning or losing since no actual money was used). However, the mere act of competing against one another caused an increase in T levels. This is a likely manifestation of the challenge hypothesis, namely men's T levels increase as a preparatory mechanism for meeting a competitive challenge. Finally, the increase in T manifested itself five minutes after the end of the game but was gone after twenty minutes. In other words, the endocrinological response was fleeting. For a detailed discussion between possible links between T and pathological gambling, see my recent paper with my doctoral student Eric Stenstrom published in Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics.

Announcement: Some readers might be interested in my recent taped conversation with Dr. Steven Platek (cognitive neuroscientist and co-editor of Evolutionary Psychology), as part of the new initiative Evolution: This View of Life. We discussed several evolutionary-based topics many of which revolved around my work in the evolutionary consumption area.

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