Myth busted: more testosterone does not lead to more success

The perception that one must be ruthless and aggressive to succeed in the world of business has persisted for decades. Consequently, many believe that higher levels of testosterone are associated with greater success in life. 

Now, a new study from the University of Bristol is throwing some cold water on this theory. Researchers report there is little to no evidence to suggest testosterone has any kind of tangible impact on life outcomes — for both men and women.

“There’s a widespread belief that a person’s testosterone can affect where they end up in life. Our results suggest that, despite a lot of mythology surrounding testosterone, its social implications may have been overstated,” says study co-author Dr. Amanda Hughes, Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology in Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences (PHS).

Is there a connection between testosterone and success?

While it is true that prior studies have noted a connection between higher testosterone levels in men and greater career success, study authors say it has thus far been unclear if those findings are due to testosterone leading to success or perhaps the opposite: more success leads to more testosterone. 

“Higher testosterone in men has previously been linked to various kinds of social success. A study of male executives found that testosterone was higher for those who had more subordinates. A study of male financial traders found that higher testosterone correlated with greater daily profits. Other studies have reported that testosterone is higher for more highly educated men, and among self-employed men, suggesting a link with entrepreneurship,” Dr. Hughes explains.

Testosterone is, of course, most synonymous with men and (sometimes toxic) masculine tendencies. Following that thread a bit further, it’s reasonable to theorize that more testosterone could be advantageous in the business world. Testosterone is known to make people more self-confident and willing to take risks.

“Such research has supported the widespread idea that testosterone can influence success by affecting behavior. There is evidence from experiments that testosterone can make a person more assertive or more likely to take risks — traits that can be rewarded in the labor market, for instance during wage negotiations.

But there are other explanations. For example, a link between higher testosterone and success might simply reflect an influence of good health on both. Alternatively, socioeconomic circumstances could affect testosterone levels. A person’s perception of their own success could influence testosterone: in studies of sports matches, testosterone has been found to rise in the winner compared to the loser,” Dr. Hughes continues.

How the research worked

In pursuit of some clarity, the research team analyzed a sample of 306,248 U.K. adults via Mendelian randomization. This allowed them to investigate testosterone’s influence on both socioeconomic position and overall health across a variety of factors including income, educational achievements, employment status, neighborhood-level deprivation, BMI, risk-taking tendencies, and self-perceptions of health.

To start, researchers searched for and identified genetic variants known to promote higher than average testosterone levels. Once discovered, each variant was tracked to determine how much it may or may not influence life outcomes (income, etc). 

Each person’s genetic code is pre-written before birth, and almost never changes throughout life. This is important to note because it essentially means it’s impossible for any of those variants to be influenced or changed over the course of someone’s life by socioeconomic or environmental factors.

In other words, if one of those testosterone variants were to be linked to greater success in life, it would strongly indicate that testosterone did indeed help produce that outcome, and not the other way around.

Moving onto the results, this investigation concluded that men with more testosterone usually have a high income, live in nice areas, and are more likely to have both a university degree and a skilled job. Interestingly the opposite was noted among women.

Females with more testosterone have lower household incomes, live in poorer areas, and are less likely to have graduated from a university. Additionally, and in line with prior findings, more testosterone in men is also linked to strong health and more risk-taking while more testosterone in women is associated with poorer health.

However, little to no evidence emerged linking any of the testosterone promoting genetic variants with any life outcome among both men and women. This indicates that while there is clearly some type of connection between success and testosterone in men, it doesn’t look like testosterone actually promotes or causes that success. All in all, study authors conclude that testosterone does not meaningfully affect socioeconomic outcomes or health in either men or women.

It’s often said that you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar, and these findings are a testament to that. There’s more than one way to the top, so don’t assume you have to be macho, aggressive, and treat life like a big casino to succeed. 

The full study can be found here, published in Science Advances.