To examine the interaction of perceived control and testosterone on persistence in the face of defeat.
Perceived Control and Motivation
The amount of control people think they have over something can greatly affect how they experience failure or defeat. For example, if someone is convinced that they can solve a problem, then they are likely to persist in trying to solve the problem, even if they fail at first (see Self-Efficacy and Academic Motivation). Perceived control is interesting because it does not always reflect actual control. It can be manipulated so that people experience high levels of perceived control in situations that are obviously out of their control. People continue to gamble though the house always wins.
This study examined the role of perceived control on persistence in a competition against an opponent that became increasingly difficult to beat. Consistent with the literature, those with high perceived control persisted in the competition longer than those with low perceived control. However, the study also examined the interaction of exogenous testosterone on this effect. Participants (all men) who received exogenous testosterone, regardless of whether they had low or high perceived control, persisted in the competition as long as those who had high perceived control and received a placebo. The results suggest that testosterone increases persistence in the face of defeat, even with low perceived control.
Perceived control: Perceived control was manipulated by giving participants two keys that could turn on a light, which was actually following a predefined schedule of 25% correct, 50% correct, or 75% correct during training. Participants were told that they were competing against another person, but the outcome was actually computer-controlled. They won the match if their light was illuminated and their opponents’ was not. During the competition, participants’ light followed a predefined schedule of 50% correct, and the opponent’s accuracy steadily rose from 50% to 80%. Participants rated their perception of control after the training period and after the competition, and they rated their opponent’s control.
Testosterone: Participants received a topical gel with 150mg of testosterone or a placebo that was identical except for the testosterone. The manipulation was verified via saliva testing at three points.
Persistence: Participants were given money to bet on each trial, which had a minimum and maximum bet. They could quit the competition at any time to keep their remaining money and continue non-betting trials until time ran out. Because the opponent improved over time, the longer they persisted, the more they lost.
Effects of Testosterone
Participants given exogenous testosterone persisted in the competition regardless of high or low perceived control, but it did not affect their perception of control or their betting behavior compared to the placebo group. Testosterone did have one other significant effect, though. It changed participants’ perception of their opponent’s control. Participants given exogenous testosterone were more sensitive to the fact their opponent was steadily outperforming them, but they persisted in the competition anyway. These findings are consistent with the literature on testosterone. Testosterone does not change the perception of events, but it can change the experience of events, making people less sensitive to negative outcomes like failure and defeat.
Why this is important
This study was conducted in the context of a competition, but the authors focus on implications for any situation that requires persistence despite failure and low perceived control. The type of situation that is common in education. As I said in the Growth Mindset post, learning requires failing. That failure is often paired with low perceived control. Whether it’s a novice who can’t figure out how to solve a problem because they lack the knowledge to fully understand the problem-solving space or a PhD student at the mercy of their committee, learners all experience low perceived control. Especially learners with low self-efficacy.
Of course I’m not implying that we should be doping our students because testosterone is just one of many factors that can affect how people experience failure. This study is interesting, though, because it can give us insights into our students’ persistence and individual needs. We already know that students experience failure differently based on their self-efficacy. This study suggests that students might experience failure differently regardless of self-efficacy. We can use this information to better understand our students and apply many other tools that increase persistence, especially in the context of gender gaps that tend to strengthen as students enter middle school and puberty.
Kutlikova, H. H., Geniole, S. N., Eisenegger, C., Lamm, C., Jocham, G., & Studer, B. (2021). Not giving up: Testosterone promotes persistence against a stronger opponent. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 128, 481-496.
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