“You are what you buy,” our consumer culture seems to tell us. But how fixed and immutable are our buying preferences? How subject are they to chemical manipulation? This may sound like the premise for a paranoid and on-the-nose thriller about capitalism but it’s also the question raised by a recent collaboration between Caltech, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Western Ontario, and ZRT Laboratory.
And the results of that study suggest the answer is: very.
Researchers assembled 243 men between the ages of 18 and 55. Half were randomly dosed with testosterone, while the other half were given a placebo. 4 hours later, when the testosterone in their blood had nearly peaked, they were given several tasks.
First, the subjects were presented with a 10-point scale, featuring a brand with high social status on one end, and a brand with low status—but otherwise equal quality—on the other. The men were asked to move a slider towards their preferred brand—the farther the slider, the stronger their preference.
The results? The testosterone-dosed men showed a distinct lean towards the higher-status brand compared to the placebo group.
But did the testosterone make these men have a greater desire for luxury, or was it about a sense of power, or appreciation for quality? To isolate these variables, a second test was deployed.
This time, the men were presented with an ad for a luxury product. Some were shown an ad emphasizing its quality, some were shown an ad playing up its power, and a third group watched an ad driving home the concept of luxury. Afterwards, they ranked their attitude towards that product on a scale of one to ten.
Only the men subjected to the luxury-focused ad saw a difference between the testosterone group and the placebo. In other words, the results point to a direct relationship between wishing to acquire luxury goods and ingesting a dose of testosterone.
A few things to keep in mind before deciding that your testosterone level has doomed you to a life of longing after expensive cars and fancy watches: first, a person’s testosterone levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day. Something as simple as watching your sports team winning a home game can noticeably boost your testosterone levels—or, interestingly, consuming luxury goods.
Second, this test only focused on men. As the study itself notes, researchers carrying out these experiments should also look at the buying effects of testosterone on women.
Beyond that, “status” is a bit of a moving target as a concept, meaning different things to different people in different cultures and subgroups.
Still, food for thought. And remember, the next time you’re craving a pair of designer shades, it could just be the testosterone talking…