Testosterone in the studio


Dear Artist,

A remarkable study, Endogenous Steroids and Financial Risk-Taking on a London Trading Floor, has implications for folks in other professions, including ours. According to the study, stock traders build testosterone on days when they are successful. Apparently, the additional hormones can cause higher levels of confidence and risk-taking, while too much of it can include feelings of omnipotence and even carelessness. Conversely, a trader who has experienced successive losses will have higher levels of the downer cortisol, leading to risk aversion and sloppy choices.

Deux Hommes, 1969 oil on canvas by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Deux Hommes, 1969
oil on canvas
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

“Traders apparently don’t know they are being manipulated by their hormone fluctuations,” says John Coates, co-author of the study. The uppers, he finds, tend to happen in market bubbles, while cortisol prevails during downturns. Managers are advised to whip erratic traders off the floor and devise various means to soothe them. The study says little about the hormones of lady traders, presumably because there are not many of them, but it does recommend hiring women as they are less likely to fluctuate.

Very interesting. I always wondered why, on the odd times when I do something rather good, I’m immediately hyped up and do yet another. Hormones, eh? Sometimes I get into a veritable orgy of good art and become some sort of painting athlete.

Seated Men with Sword and Flower, 1945 (EA 1971) Lithographic Gouache by Pablo Picasso

Seated Men with Sword and Flower, 1945 (EA 1971)
Lithographic Gouache
by Pablo Picasso

On the other hand, when I do lousy work, my confidence suffers and my prowess wilts. The work gets worse and worse. I leave the studio in shame.

Questions arise: Would it be best to always maintain a positive but modest balance of testosterone by doing neither too good nor too bad? Or should one take advantage of the bonanzas and jump on them when they occur? How does one avoid getting cortisol in the artistic veins? Does clothing affect things either way?

We are all familiar with those wonderful days of hot marathons where quality seems to stay high. The idea of “winning streak,” like “scoring,” pervades most cultures. Good breeds good. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we feel the need to be particularly careful with the first of a series — to make sure standards are high at the beginning. Even higher levels may follow as the testosterone kicks in.

Best regards,


Man with a Pipe, 1915 oil on canvas by Pablo PIcasso

Man with a Pipe, 1915
oil on canvas
by Pablo Picasso

PS: “We found that a trader’s morning testosterone level predicts his day’s profitability. We also found that a trader’s cortisol rises with both the variance of his trading results and the volatility of the market. Our study suggested that higher testosterone may contribute to economic return. Further, testosterone and cortisol are known to have cognitive and behavioral effects, so if the acutely elevated steroids we observed were to persist or increase as volatility rises, they may shift risk preferences and even affect a trader’s ability to engage in rational choice.” (John Coates)

Esoterica: Are there positive creative juices that run through our bodies? Or is it, as Emerson suggested, simply a matter of building self-trust? Pablo Picasso, no stranger to the concepts of marathon and libido-driven confidence, thought creative success was based on the simple surrender to the ultimate seduction of work itself.

This letter was originally published as “Testosterone in the studio” on September 16, 2008.

11-picasso-self-portraitThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“My mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier you’ll be a general; if you become a monk you’ll end up as the Pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.” (Pablo Picasso)



  1. Also “Pride goes before a fall.” Too much confidence — just like it says.
    This article helps explain a lot. Not just about my own streaks (and I am female) but about our cultural traditions in general.

  2. Melodie Herbert on

    On our morning walk today, we 3 women were talking about how aggressive male mammals can be, particularly during the rutting season, (we have wild deer on our rural island) and that male apes and bears will even eat their offspring, the mothers must protect them. This we also called the Testosterone effect.
    Which I suspect is behind much drive, confidence, competitiveness, impatience, aggression, and violent behaviour. If we are ever to have peace on earth, something must be done to harness this hormone driven omnipotence, which can be so destructive to harmony/peace. But clearly the high testosterone is a feel-good hormone. When it is coursing through one’s body, one can get addicted to the optimism and energy that this creates. This is a wonderful article, as always. Thank you.

    • The western man has become a low testosterone beta male contributing to the decline of the western world.
      Saying something has to be done to harness it has led to our current problems.

    • i am a guy.
      peace and harmony….that would be terrific!!…and lovely…and i agree

      i have experienced males that are dominant, others passive. And females that are passive and some that are dominant. Each acting out of their “chemical levels” as well as their “hurt and pain”….all the while bringing good…and destruction!

      and after seeing this…in my humble opinion i believe it is the female of the species which can provide the backdrop and bring sense and order to an otherwise chaotic situation if she can see clearly to provide it. A “man”…who knows (in relationship) the respect and gentle, supportive side of the feminine mystique…can lead the world! And the woman who knows the protection, love and care of him can provide balance, love and accountability.

      it is, in the mix of working together that beauty and fullness of life burst forth, whether in the studio or on the (Wall) street…

    • Back in the day, the Army (medical guys) used to administer saltpetre to the young soldiers, or maybe they were talking about boys’ or military academies. This was reputed to damp down the sexual or hormonal levels of young men, leaving them less rowdy and more cooperative and able to toe the line.

  3. HRT hormone replacement therapy has become more popular. In these therapies estrogen and Testosterone are implanted in your hip. Progesterone is given in pill form to balance them.
    Your thyroid needs to be tested as it controls how your body uses these hormones. I am a Plein Air painter and HRT has changed my life and made me a more productive person and painter!
    More info is available about this school of thought online. The protocol my Doctor follows is called Biote. Google it for more info if you are interested.
    I wanted to share my experience as it may be helpful to others. This is a available for men and women. I think it will change how we age.

  4. Females can be very aggressive in protecting their young, so where does that fit in?
    My husband is much less aggressive than I am; in situations where reason and tact are called for, he deals with things.
    Occasionally, when we travel to far off places, when a somewhat more intimidating approach is necessary, then I step in. Most people don’t want to mess with an irate elderly female backed up by two tall quiet reasonable men. It’s a universal language all over the world and it hasn’t failed our family yet.
    Foreign travel, making art and exercise will change how we age.

  5. I do wish Ferdinand could have published her memoirs. Perhaps they still exist in some musty folder buried in a Paris attic…or among madame Braque’s effects. Testosterone may have propelled Pablo….but what he really wanted he couldn’t have….so of course he did what was expected by denigrating it through his ugly paintings of women and through his ugly interactions with them…is there such a thing as vagina envy?

    • Sorry. Ugly- just like beauty- is in the eye of the beholder. You think he *ugly* painted (only) women? He painted everyone that way- as it somehow reflected how he was able to view the world once free of a traditionalist approach.

      Are you suggesting he wanted to have a vagina while still male? Or BE a Vagina? They are- quite different things. Ask any gay male.

      Hetero relationship- colored by thousands of years of repression/control of the Feminine- has delivered us to this present. Whether we survive its lethal toxicity remains to be seen.

  6. Norma Hopkins on

    Re Pablo, I used to wonder why he depicted women in the way he did. But I read a book called When I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. By Laurie Lee. It’s about an English guy who walked from England To Spain before the Spanish Civil War. By the middle of the book. By the middle of the book, horrible things were happening to the people in Spain. I am not an Historian by a long way but I remembered his Picasso’s work Gurnica and his crying woman painting.
    It made me see her not as a woman, but as Spain itself, heartbroken, anguished torn to pieces by itself. Lee was sent home before thenWar hit in Ernest but he loved Spain. He was powerfully affected by what was happening there and vowed to return. Lee left England as a thoughtless young man and returned sadder but a bit more grown up. I don’t love Picasso’s work, I find him disturbing but that may be the point. I can now look at the crying woman with different eyes.

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