Hormones influence unethical behavior

July 28, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas -- Hormones play a two-part role in encouraging and reinforcing cheating and other unethical behavior, according to research from Harvard University and The University of Texas at Austin.

With cheating scandals a persistent threat on college campuses and financial fraud costing businesses more than $3.7 trillion annually, UT Austin and Harvard researchers looked to hormones for more answers, specifically the reproductive hormone testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol.

According to the study, the endocrine system plays a dual role in unethical acts. First, elevated hormone levels predict likelihood of cheating. Then, a change of hormone levels during the act reinforces the behavior.

"Although the science of hormones and behavior dates back to the early 19th century, only recently has research revealed just how powerful and pervasive the influence of the endocrine system is on human behavior," said the corresponding author and UT Austin professor of psychology Robert Josephs.

Researchers asked 117 participants to complete a math test, grade it themselves and self-report the number of correctly completed problems. The more problems they got correct, the more money they would earn.

From salivary samples collected before and after the test, researchers found that individuals with elevated levels of testosterone and cortisol were more likely to overstate the number of correctly solved problems.

"Elevated testosterone decreases the fear of punishment while increasing sensitivity to reward. Elevated cortisol is linked to an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that can be extremely debilitating," Josephs said. "Testosterone furnishes the courage to cheat, and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat."

Additionally, participants who cheated showed lowered levels of cortisol and reported reductions in emotional distress after the test, as if cheating provided some sort of stress relief.

"The stress reduction is accompanied by a powerful stimulation of the reward centers in the brain, so these physiological psychological changes have the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing the unethical behavior," Josephs said.

Because neither hormone without the other predicted unethical behavior, lowering levels of either hormone may prevent unethical episodes. Prior research shows that tasks that reward groups rather than individuals can eliminate the influence of testosterone on performance; and, many stress relieving techniques such as yoga, meditation and exercise reduce levels of cortisol, Josephs said.

"The take-home message from our studies is that appeals based on ethics and morality -- the carrot approach -- and those based on threats of punishment -- the stick approach -- may not be effective in preventing cheating," Josephs said. "By understanding the underlying causal mechanism of cheating, we might be able to design interventions that are both novel and effective."
-end-
The UT Austin and Harvard study "Hormones and ethics: Understanding the biological basis of unethical conduct" will be published in the August 2015 edition of Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

University of Texas at Austin

Related Testosterone Articles from Brightsurf:

ACP issues guideline for testosterone treatment in adult men with age-related low testosterone
Physicians should prescribe testosterone for men with age-related low testosterone only to treat sexual dysfunction, the American College of Physicians (ACP) says in a new evidence-based clinical practice guideline.

Women with asthma appear more likely to have lower levels of testosterone
Women with asthma appear more likely to have lower levels of 'free' (not attached to proteins) testosterone than women who do not have asthma, according to new research published online in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Penis development needs more than just testes and testosterone
Proper development of the fetal penis requires not just testosterone from the testes, but a second hormone produced by other tissues, including the placenta, according to a new study publishing Feb.

Testosterone treatment over 10 years can improve or reverse type 2 diabetes in men with low testosterone, and induce significant weight loss
New research presented at this year's annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) reveals that in men with low testosterone who have type 2 diabetes (T2D), testosterone therapy can improve their disease and reverse its progress, and can also induce significant weight loss.

Testosterone replacement therapy may slow the progression of COPD
GALVESTON, Texas -- Researchers from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that testosterone replacement therapy may slow disease progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Testosterone research brings new hope for cancer patients
Approximately 20 percent of cancer related deaths are attributed to the syndrome of cachexia.

Testosterone prescriptions have sharply dropped in the past few years
Testosterone use in the United States tripled between 2001 and 2011, mostly in men without a clear indication for it.

Use of prescribed testosterone therapy in US decreases in recent years
Testosterone use in the United States tripled from 2001 through 2011, mostly in men without a clear indication.

Testosterone causes men to desire luxury goods
Researchers examine testosterone's effect on men's desire for goods that are considered to have social cachet.

Men's testosterone levels largely determined by where they grow up
Men's testosterone levels are largely determined by their environment during childhood, according to new research.

Read More: Testosterone News and Testosterone Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.