Testosterone: Sometimes it's a girl thing

The "male hormone" influences women, not men, when it comes to risk taking

Published August 26, 2009 10:05AM (EDT)

When a new study about sex differences is released, surprising revelations often take a back seat to previous knowledge (or commonly held assumptions). Such was the case with the coverage of a study showing that women with higher levels of testosterone are less averse to financial risks than women with lower levels of the so-called male hormone. But, psst, guess what: It also revealed that the same link between testosterone levels and financial risk taking was not found to be statistically significant among men.

Researchers had 550 MBA students at the University of Chicago submit to a testosterone test and then had them play a computer game that measures one's propensity for financial risk-taking. Then, two years after graduation, researchers checked back in with 379 of the students to see what career they had ended up in. They found that the link between testosterone levels and risk aversion was statistically significant for women -- and, as a result, predicted the relative riskiness of their chosen career paths -- but the same was not true not for men. This came as a bit of a surprise: "We were puzzled that the effect is not present in the part of the species that is known for testosterone," researcher Paola Sapienza said in a press release.

Interestingly enough, though, the correlation does apply when you consider only men with moderate levels of testosterone, which excludes the 25 percent of dudes who exceed a testosterone threshold identified by the researchers. When you consider men and women who fall below that threshold, "it is testosterone, not gender, that correlates with risk taking," Sapienza explained to me over the phone. The gender difference in risk aversion just — poof! — disappeared. (A fun little fact she divulged during our call: The subject with the highest level of testosterone was female.)

Sapienza proposed one explanation for this: Maybe testosterone simply affects men and women in different ways. It's also good to keep in mind that a causal relationship wasn't established; there might be an important outside variable at play. Per the usual, more research has to be done — so stay tuned.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-Flory

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Love And Sex