Your Body Chemistry and Professional Status

Your Body Chemistry and Professional Status

Harvard Kennedy School

August 25, 2015

Doug Gavel
Power and professional status are often associated with myriad environmental factors including education and upbringing, but a new research study provides compelling fresh evidence linking professional status attainment with the interaction of two biological hormones.

“Testosterone, Cortisol and Attained Status” is co-authored by five leading academics in the field of bio-behavioral science, including Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Professor Jennifer Lerner. The lead author is Gary D. Sherman, who conducted the project while he was a post-doctoral fellow in Lerner’s lab at HKS, now a faculty member at SUNY Stony Brook; Robert A. Josephs, Professor at the University of Texas, Austin; Jonathan Renshon, formerly a doctoral student in Lerner’s lab, now on faculty at University of Wisconsin, Madison; and James J. Gross, Professor at Stanford University. The paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Social positions matters. For better or worse, those at the top of hierarchies—whether alpha male baboons or corporate CEOs—have disproportionate influence on groups and organizations,” the authors stipulate. “Thus, it is important to determine the factors influencing who attains high-status social roles.”

Prior research has shown that high-level male executives have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than their peers, and that cortisol can inhibit the influence of testosterone. To build upon the existing research, the authors in this study examined both testosterone and cortisol levels in a sample group of high-performing private and public-sector executives. The findings were clear.

“As predicted, testosterone was positively associated with attained status—the number of subordinates over which an executive has authority—but only for low-cortisol executives,” the authors conclude. “More specifically, high-testosterone, low-cortisol executives were particularly likely to occupy high status positions whereas low-testosterone, low-cortisol executives were particularly likely to occupy lower status positions.”

The authors argue that “these findings cast cortisol as an equalizer between high- and low-testosterone individuals. When cortisol is low, low-testosterone individuals are likely to hold lower-ranking positions whereas high-testosterone individuals are likely to hold higher-ranking positions. By contrast, when cortisol is high, low- and high-testosterone individuals possess similar levels of organizational status.”

Numerous employer programs seek to reduce employee stress levels as a means of reducing employees’ health-risk factors. In light of the present evidence, Lerner argues that “reducing stress levels may be a critical goal not only because doing so will improve health but also because doing so may enhance employee’s leadership potential.”

Although this study examined male subjects, Lerner says that future research aims to examine these processes among females, whose endocrine systems differ substantially.

Jennifer Lerner is Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School and co-founder of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory. Drawing insights from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, her research examines human judgment and decision making.