How does marketing to high-testosterone males differ from pitching their lower testosterone counterparts? And who are those testosterone-rich individuals?
Recent neuroeconomics research gives us some clues. As reported in the New Scientist, Harvard researcher Terry Burnham tested male subjects with the Ultimatum Game after measuring their testosterone levels. The Ultimatum Game gives one player money and lets that player divide it between himself and another player. The second player can accept or refuse the split. If the second player refuses the allocation, neither player receives any money. While pure self interest would predict that the second player should always accept the split in order to receive some money instead of nothing, in reality offers perceived as low or unfair are often declined. In this case, the first player was given $40 and the option of offering the other player either $25 or $5.
Comparing the hormone data with the results of the money game showed a correlation between high testosterone levels and an increased likelihood of refusing the low, “unfair” offer of $5.
Men who rejected the deal had an average testosterone count of 380 picomoles per litre of saliva, whereas those who accepted it had an average of almost 40% of that figure. This, says Burnham, suggests that people with more testosterone are less tolerant of what they see as inequitable deals possibly due to the hormone’s influence on the brain: “You have to be very careful about being fair with them.”
He speculates that testosterone produces a greater aversion to unfair deals because the hormone is linked to dominance-seeking behaviours.
Burnham thinks the high testosterone males decline “unfair” offer not to punish the other player but to avoid appearing socially submissive. Interestingly, the high testosterone males were more generous with their own offers.
Burnham notes that the high-testosterone subjects were slightly more likely to make the more reasonable offer of $25 when placed in the position of making the proposal. This, he says, is in line with the idea from primate studies that found high testosterone males sometimes play a “magnanimous and peacekeeping” role.
In Better Living Through Chemistry: Testosterone and Generosity Susan Kuchinskas has summarized related work by Paul Zak, head of the Neuroeconomics department of Claremont Graduate School. Zak actually dosed his subjects with testosterone prior to their playing the Ultimatum Game. Like Burnham, Zak found that the men on testosterone were more generous when they were the player dividing the money, and also more likely to refuse any money if the split wasn’t fair. Kuchinskas quotes Zak: “We essentially create alpha males in the study. This is consistent with the animal literature. In primates, the hierarchy is maintained by the alpha male by sharing access to food and females.”
Who are High Testosterone Males? I don’t think marketers will be administering testosterone to potential customers anytime soon, but there are indeed significant variations among different population segments. With the caveat that even with each group there are major variations in testosterone levels, and that even in the same individuals levels vary throughout the day, the two groups that might be expected to show the highest levels are:
Younger Men. According to the Mayo Clinic, at about age 40 testosterone production in men starts to decline. This is sometimes called male menopause, as physiological changes like loss of muscle mass accompany the change. Unlike the rather rapid changes that occur in women, though, this decrease in male hormone production is gradual, perhaps a percent or two per year. In general, then, one would expect the highest testosterone men to be under age 40, though significant differences may not occur for another decade or so.
Married Men. According to New Scientist in Married men have less testosterone,
Anthropologist Peter Gray and a team from Harvard University… measured testosterone in the saliva of 58 men who were either single, married or married with children. In all the men hormone levels fell over the course of the day as part of a natural daily cycle that peaks in the morning. But the decrease was greater in the married men than in bachelors. “And fathers seem to show an even more dramatic difference from unmarried men,” says Gray.
Neuromarketing Implications. The Ultimatum Game is an interesting academic exercise, but what does it mean for marketers? I think the first takeaway is that the research shows that high testosterone males are still acting out their “dominant” role of prehistoric days, even if that role is barely recognizable now. If we assume that younger, single males are statistically more likely to have higher testosterone levels, then marketers pitching to that demographic should be careful to recognize their “alpha male” aspirations.
Some aspects of marketing to this group are already well known to marketers. They buy performance cars, and products to enhance their appeal to females. The Ultimatum Game results, though, show there’s a less obvious side to this demographic. Contrary to what one might expect, they may behave in a generous manner – if it seems to make them appear strong. And they don’t want to seem to be taken advantage of – they turn down money to punish someone else’s “unfair” behavior.
I can imagine different pricing strategies to appeal to this group. A high-testosterone customer might pay a high price for an item if it would seem to enhance his social standing – ordering a pricey premium vodka, for example, when with a group of friends. On the other hand, that same buyer might decline to buy something expensive that might make him look weak or foolish. To confound marketers, it’s possible that the social setting could produce a different result. If, for example, the group had just been discussing how expensive vodkas are hard to distinguish from cheaper varieties, that same drink buyer might be much less likely to want to seem to be duped by a cabal of liquor marketers.
In short, “high testosterone marketing” means helping your customers appear to be strong and confident, and avoiding anything that makes them appear weak, indecisive, or otherwise compare unfavorably to anyone around them. These goals are no doubt desirable for any customer group, but products and pitches that accomplish them are particularly likely to succeed with younger male buyers.