Why some individuals are more competitive than others

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During competition, we aim to compete with the very best. But not all of us seek competition or beating our opponents. So what makes some of us prone to compete?

 Image by George Bellows– Art-CD, Public Domain. Firpo sending Dempsey outside the ring; painting. Illustration of a competitive boxing match showing winner and loser.

Social groups often consist of hierarchies, wherein a few people possess a higher status than the rest. Think of competitive sports, like boxing. Here, one has to fight to be the “first, second, or third best boxer in the world”. Winning such a competitive event will boost your social status, giving you access to limited resources, such as money or prestige. However, these benefits also come at a cost. When having such high status positions, more social conflict (investing too much time in boxing, instead of family or school) or health problems (head concussions) will tend to follow. Consequently, gaining this high status does not appeal to all of us.

Testosterone might influence our motivation to win a competition
A study at the University of Texas investigated the relationship between competition and testosterone (a primary male sex hormone that is also present in women but in lower concentrations) during a game. Losing a game elicited higher stress responses (whereas winning decreased stress responses) in individuals with high levels of testosterone, but not in individuals with low levels of testosterone. Stress levels in high testosterone individuals even affected their willingness and motivation to continue a game. These findings indicated that testosterone might make us more prone to be competitive.

The role of testosterone
Testosterone is a primary male sex hormone that plays an important role during the development of male reproductive organs such as the testis and prostate, and has some general effects on health (more on this here). Next to these physical effects, testosterone affects our mind. Individuals with high testosterone levels tend to be socially dominant and aggressive (behaviours needed to gain high status such as during a competition) compared to individuals with lower testosterone levels. This relationship was found in a variety of species, including primates. This relation between testosterone and that of aggression and/or social dominance has been explained by research that has shown that decreases in testosterone can lessen our sensitivity to punishment and make us less anxious.

What determines testosterone levels in the body?
It seems that genetic, as well as environmental factors contribute to our testosterone levels. Research has shown that 66% of the differences in testosterone levels in men and 41% in women are explained by genes. Environmental factors such as previous experiences with victory and defeat, or chronic stress can also influence testosterone levels.

To conclude, although competitive behaviour is a consequence of many different complex processes besides testosterone, research shows that it plays an important role in making us more or less competitive.

Written by Mahur. Edited by: Annelies.

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Another interesting article on testosterone and stress hormones and aggression




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