A new study suggests elevated testosterone levels cause poker players to take actions that undercut their ability to earn a profit from their game.
The study (viewable here), dubbed the Effects of Testosterone Administration on Strategic Gambling in Poker Play, sought to determine whether the hormone deserved its bad reputation as being responsible for everything from douchebag bro culture to the risky moves financial traders took that led to the 2008 global economic crisis.
Interestingly, the study’s authors chose to test their theory on 20 female volunteers, who received either a testosterone lozenge or a placebo, because the effects of such dosages has been determined in women but not in men.
The women were asked to engage in a computerized zero-sum, two-person poker game. After being dealt their cards, the players were asked to make a discrete bet either high or low. If the bets matched, the hands were disclosed and the winning player took the pot. If the bets didn’t match, the low-bidding player had the option of calling or folding. If the low player called, the hands were disclosed and the winner took the pot, but the hands were not compared if the low-bidding player folded.
The authors note that this game’s accepted profit-maximizing strategy was to bet high when holding a strong hand, to bluff randomly when hands were weak and never to call other players’ bluffs. The strategy is disadvantageous for players seeking reputable status, as being caught bluffing reveals deceptive intent, while not calling other players’ bluffs suggests submission in blindly tolerating deception.
Contrary to expectations, the authors found that players who received a dose of testosterone bluffed less frequently and less randomly. In particular, these subjects bluffed less frequently when their hands were very weak, leading to their bluffs becoming more predictable. The authors concluded that “when social reputation is at stake, testosterone might actually induce a risk averse strategy.”
Players who received testosterone also called their opponents’ bluffs more frequently, which the authors chalked up to these players not wishing to be seen as submissively tolerating deception by their opponents. These “costly signaling strategies” employ “cost-ineffective behaviors to reliably signal dominance qualities.”
The authors summed up their findings by saying elevated testosterone’s effect on bluffing and calling were “in all cases ultimately costly, and defensibly serve reputable-status seeking.” Rather than inducing “materialistic, greedy behaviors,” testosterone induced “status-seeking behavior based on reputation concerns.”
If nothing else, the study may convince players to stop striking goofy ‘power poses’ to jack up their test levels prior to engaging in poker combat.