GroupThink and Testosterone

From The Wellcome Trust:

OK, this seems sound to me, but what are we going to do? Inject testosterone or oxytocin, depending on need?

Problem solving in groups can provide benefits over individual decisions as we are able to share our information and expertise. However, there is a tension between cooperation and self-orientated behaviour: although groups might benefit from a collective intelligence, collaborating too closely can lead to an uncritical groupthink, ending in decisions that are bad for all.

Attempts to understand the biological mechanisms behind group decision making have tended to focus on the factors that promote cooperation, and research has shown that people given a boost of the hormone oxytocin tend to be cooperative. Now, in a study published today in the journal ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society B’, researchers have shown that the hormone testosterone has the opposite effect – it makes people act less cooperatively and more egocentrically….

Testosterone is implicated in a variety of social behaviours. For example, in chimpanzees, levels of testosterone rise ahead of a confrontation or a fight. In female prisoners, studies have found that higher levels of testosterone correlate with increased antisocial behaviour and higher aggression. Researchers believe that such findings reflect a more general role for testosterone in increasing the motivation to dominate others and increase egocentricity.

Understanding the brain is one of the strategic aims of the Wellcome Trust, which funded this study. Commenting on the findings, Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Trust, said: “Cooperating with others has obvious advantages for sharing skills and experience, but we know it doesn’t always work, particularly if one alpha male or alpha female dominates the decision making. This result helps us understand at a hormonal level the factors that can disrupt our attempts to work together.”



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  • Pat Pope

    I kept reading this as Oxycontin, the narcotic until I focused on the word hormone. Although the narcotic might not be a bad idea for some groups. 🙂

    Having been the only female on an elder board before, I remember noticing sometimes that what seemed to be going on amounted to nothing more than pissing contests. Maybe what this research can help us consider is more gender-balanced groupings as opposed to strictly all male or all female. I think we can balance each other out nicely.

  • scotmcknight

    And Pat, isn’t there a connection to be explored between testosterone and masculine Christianity?

  • TJJ

    I thought that is why we have MBA programs. Good and effective and well trained managers understand (or at least should)these dymnamics in working with people and groups. Poor/untrained managers do not.

    I have done significant business consulting over the years, and I never cease to be amazed however, at how mnay bad managers and how much very poor management is still out there.

  • I have seen research recently that argues that the mult-tasking and group decision-making approaches may be helpful in some applications but many other activities … particularly those that involve creativity and innovation … often benefit from focused individual concentration.

    I also remember hearing of study that compared female and male military strategists’ solutions to war game scenarios. As I recall, the women tended (and “tended” is the operative word here) toward more efficient and effective solutions. However, they often took too long to devise the solution. The men tended to come to workable solutions quicker but tended to include more significant weaknesses and oversights in their plans.

    It is true that you see pissing matches in all male settings. But a close relative who is a business consultant insists that some of the most divisive codependent dysfunctional settings she has seen were offices made up of only women.

    What does this say to me? A really vital organization will have a mix of people in its leadership (women and men) and we need to appreciate the strengths and limitations of various ways of getting things done.

  • Mark Driscoll could do with a generous dose of oxytocin.

  • Pat Pope

    Good point, Scot.

  • Pat Pope

    “It is true that you see pissing matches in all male settings. But a close relative who is a business consultant insists that some of the most divisive codependent dysfunctional settings she has seen were offices made up of only women.”

    Very true, Michael (@#4) and there are exceptions within these groups as well. I tend to be more in touch with my so-called male side in that I tend toward quick thinking and decisiveness and there are some men more in touch with their so-called female side. You and I agree that a good mix in any organization would be beneficial.

  • Yes. On many of these issues I think we would see distribution curves that are skewed differently for the sexes but for which there is considerable overlap. I think that is why in the aggregate we can talk about shades of difference between the sexes but particularizing traits to individuals just because of their sex … as in rigid gender roles … isn’t wise.

  • DRT

    Good comments all the way around.

    Group settings generally require experienced facilitation to get good results. While some managers are good at that, many aren’t.

    The whole situation is quite complex. Michael Kruse starts to get at the complexity. Sometimes, having a plan that all buy into is much more important than having the best plan. Sometimes having a quick decision is better than having the best one. Sometimes, it is the most techinically correct decision. Add to that mix the rampant egotism of many managers and you end up with complexity that exceeds the ability of the groups.

    The other factor noted, diversity, is the least intuitive for most. I can’t tell you how many organizations I see that have a leader who ends up with yes men all around because they feel those people get it. Sure they get it, if the it is just the leaders own thoughts.

    Good education around decision making and facilitation is the drug for this situation. And the ability to recognize the truly genius idea that happens every now and then is priceless.

  • Jerry

    Leadership matters. Good leaders understand the varied forces in group dynamics and can use that to make well-reasoned decisions.