Why Are Men So Overconfident?

New research shows an abundance of testosterone leads to poor decision making. 


In the Whole Foods vitamin aisle one of medicine’s most glaring inconsistencies thrives thanks to a complete lack of oversight by American governing agencies. Homeopathic remedies are shelved beside vitamins. Each works on opposite principles, yet customers pile them into their cart to help create a $34 billion a year “alternative” medicine industry. 

Homeopathy is based on the disproven idea that the less of a substance exists the more potent it is. While some vials contain minute quantities of an active ingredient, most do not. You’re ingesting sugar water under the premise that the ‘essence’ of the substance will cure you. Oscillococcinum, for example, contains no molecules of the duck liver it is initially blended with.

Vitamins are not necessarily on better ground. While they work in many cases due to an actual substance in the pill, you’re still overloading your body on compounds that might not only be useless, but dangerous. If you don’t need a surplus of vitamin C, for one, you’re putting yourself at risk for indigestion, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, and in rare cases, death. 

Homeopathy sells because many people don’t realize how these provings are manufactured. Vitamins, by contrast, operate under a persistent  modern mindset: more is better. If a hundred of this nutrient is good, a thousand must be ten times as good. Obviously this is nonsense, but since most vitamins are relatively benign we forgo details. 

This mindset has affected many substances we ingest: vitamin drips and nootropics are recent booming interventions. For a number of years testosterone has cornered the Viagra market, promising aging men a boost when sluggishness sets in and their sex drive grows weary. 

Do some men benefit from testosterone replacement therapy? Certainly. But JAMA published one study revealing that half of men taking it are not deficient—the “more is more” mentality on full display. 

As with vitamins and other supplements, the results from too much testosterone are not benign. The result might not be an undiminished sex drive or boundless energy. As the NY Times reports

Neuroscientists are uncovering evidence suggesting that when men take testosterone, they make more impulsive — and often faulty — decisions.

Research by the University of Pennsylvania’s Gideon Nave and Western University of Ontario’s Amos Nadler links testosterone with naiveté. Studying 243 Californian men, half rubbed testosterone gel on their bodies, the other half a placebo. Four-and-a-half hours later they returned to the lab to take three tests. 

One of the tests is so common I’m surprised anyone gets it wrong, but so it goes: A ball and bat cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat is a dollar more than the ball. How much does each cost?

The immediate reading is a dollar and ten—easy! A dollar for the bat, a ten cent ball, the wrong answer a high percentage of people give. In his book Irresistible, marketing professor Adam Alter reminds us that humans are naturally “cognitive misers” that will always choose the path of least cognitive resistance: 

People prefer to think only as much as necessary to reach a just-acceptable conclusion. Miserliness makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because thinking is costly.

Humans constantly take mental shortcuts, Alter writes, to reduce our cognitive load. Apparently testosterone comes into play, at least on Nave and Adler’s research subjects, who were, on average, 35 percent more likely to make the intuitive mistake on the cost of the bat and ball. These men were also rushed in their bad judgment and gave incorrect answers faster than the men with normal testosterone levels, while taking longer to generate correct answers.

A bat and ball is one thing; stocks quite another. One hundred and forty male traders were given a testosterone boost in another study

Men with boosted testosterone significantly overpriced assets compared with men who got the placebo, and they were slower to incorporate data about falling values into their trading decisions.

Could the housing crash have been caused by testosterone overload? It is certainly possible. Risk aversion is of no concern with a rush of hormones flooding your system—for some men pills are not even necessary. The sound of a revving engine is enough to spike levels.

More is certainly more, but that does not equate to better. The chemistry involved in human biology is delicate in the first place; small variations of various nutrients and compounds greatly affects our bodies and minds. 

Confidence is a wonderful quality to cultivate, but when combined with blind enthusiasm disasters are to be expected. We’ve seen it often in the past, Empowered by a mechanism for understanding errant behavior better, we can hope amends will be made. 

Deep, thoughtful behavior might fight our natural inclinations, but much is not natural these days. The discipline of right action, to borrow the Buddhist phrase, is a quality to be achieved, not our default mode. The results are worth it for everyone. 

--

Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.