Objectives: This study employed an experimental design that induced social comparison in couples by systematically varying performance feedback in a manipulated pretend IQ test.
Methods: Sixty-two heterosexual couples were randomly assigned to four experimental groups, in which either the man (1) or the woman (2) was provided with superior feedback and compared to couples which received equal feedback (3) or no feedback (4). The biopsychological responses were assessed using repeated measures of mood, levels of the gonadal hormones testosterone (T) and estradiol (E2), and the stress hormone cortisol (C) in both partners.
Results: Compared to the men, the entire female sample responded to the test with a decrease in T. Women who received superior feedback showed a unique endocrine profile, characterized by an immediate increase in E2 and a delayed decrease in T. In contrast to men, women’s mood decreased in all conditions except for the superior feedback.
Conclusions: Our results indicate that women may be physiologically and subjectively more strongly affected by comparison processes with their partners in the dimension of skills and achievement. Moreover, our findings are the first to show that in romantic relationships, the endocrine correlates of social comparison may include an intriguing interplay between the steroid hormones T and E2, but not C.