There is a well-established literature demonstrating that women are less likely to choose to enter competitive settings, even when they are just as able as their would-be competitors. While most of these experiments have been conducted in a laboratory setting, different views toward competition have obvious implications for life outside the lab, including education and career trajectories. However, there has not been a similar investigation about women’s attitudes toward self-competition – are women more or less willing to compete against their own previous scores over time? Johanna Mollerstrom, Professor of Economics at Humboldt University, presented the results of three recent experiments on self- and other-competition.
In existing studies, there are generally two mechanisms underlying women’s differential interest in competition: women may be more risk-averse, or they may be less (over-?) confident than men. With self-competition, risk aversion and confidence take on slightly different valences: it’s still risky to compete against yourself, but risk based on the uncertainty of who you’ll be competing against is alleviated. Similarly, confidence may shift when individuals only have to assess their own capacity to improve on previous rounds. There are reasons to believe that self-competition may be different.
The first study was a simple lab experiment designed to test whether there is a gender difference in willingness to self-compete. Participants were asked to add up as many sets of five two-digit numbers as possible in a five-minute period. In the first round, participants were paid a piece rate of $1 for every correct problem. In the second round, participants were either randomly matched with another participant for a competition round or competed against their own first-round score. The winner of the round (either defeating their opponent or their first-round score) got $2 per correct problem. In the third round, participants got a choice between the piece rate and competition, and then were asked a few questions about their risk aversion and confidence. Half of the participants in round three could choose to opt into another other-competition round, while the other half competed against their own scores in round two.
In the other-competition condition, women were less willing to compete than equally-able men, but the difference disappears when controlling for risk aversion and confidence. This finding replicates many past experiments. In the self-competition condition, we see much the same result; risk aversion, in particular, seems to moderate any observed gender difference in willingness to compete. However, this particular experiment had a smaller sample size (N = 200), and a larger sample may indicate that there is no gender difference in willingness to self-compete at all.
The second study recruited a larger sample on MTurk and replicated the first study with a few modifications. The task was changed to a captcha-style exercise rather than addition, and the rounds were shortened to 90 seconds to conform to other online experiments. In addition, the researchers added two additional treatments, manipulating whether other-competitors were matched with someone of the same or opposite sex, while holding constant that they were matched with someone who answered the same number of questions correctly in the first round.
The results of this experiment demonstrated that, again, women were less willing to compete against others, but that the gender difference was moderated by differences in confidence and risk aversion. This experiment revealed a much more precise result for self-competition: there is no significant gender difference in willing to self-compete, though confidence and risk aversion still impact this result. It seems that confidence may play a larger role in decision to compete against others than onself.
Interestingly, when matched with a competitor with the same gender and ability level, women are still less willing to compete than men. In other studies, researchers have found that female-only groups are more willing to compete, but this was not the case in this experiment.
Further, when matched with a competitor of the opposite gender and same ability level, the researchers did not observe a significant gender difference in willingness to compete. It may be that this condition provided better information – competitors did not have to think about how good their competition was, which may have provided a confidence boost (or alleviated some of the risk of competition) and eliminated the gender difference. In both the self- and other-competition conditions, men were less risk-averse than women. However, men were more confident in the other-competition condition; in the self-competition condition, there was no gender difference in confidence.
The first two studies permitted participants to choose whether they wanted to compete; in the third study, participants were forced to compete, but were permitted to choose between self- and other-competition.
In treatment one, participants got the piece rate, then either self-competition or other-competition in randomized order. Finally, participants were able to choose between each of the three options. In treatment two, the fourth round was set up so that participants had to compete, but could chose self- or other-competition. In treatment three, participants didn’t experience self-competition at all: they did two piece rate rounds, and then could choose piece rate or other-competition. In treatment four, participants complete two piece rate rounds, then self-competition, and then in the final round could opt to compete against others.
In treatment one, a large proportion of participants (of both genders!) chose the piece rate. The two competition types seem to be roughly equally popular. In treatment two, when forced to compete, self-competition was much more popular than other-competition. This finding supports the hypothesis that individuals are better able to assess their own capabilities and performance, and may be able to intuit that they can improve a great deal in another round of self-competition.
Having experienced self-competition does not change women’s propensity to choose other-competition. Interestingly, having experienced self-competition makes men less likely to choose other-competition. While this finding may have something to do with how men think about confidence, the researchers did not have an ex ante hypothesis that would explain this result, which is an interesting avenue for future research.
The researchers also sought to decompose confidence by giving each participant a ratio of “how many tasks do you think you completed correctly” over “how many tasks do you think others completed correctly.” In other-competition, men were significantly overconfident and women were significantly underconfident. However, in self-competition, there was no significant gender difference in confidence. Men are more sure that they will beat another person that they are sure that they will beat themselves, while women are more confident in their ability to improve over time rather than beat another person. Men and women are about equally good at assessing their own performance, but women tend to overestimate (and men to underestimate) how well others do. This finding may have relevance for giving feedback: to encourage women, it may be better to tell them “others are not as good as you think” than “you’re better than you think.”
The researchers also examined causal attributions of performance, asking participants on a 1-10 scale whether their performance was “only due to factors I could control” to “only things I could not control.” In self-competition, there was no gender difference in causal attribution – unsurprisingly, all participants attributed self-competition more to factors they could control. In the other-competition condition, women were slightly more likely to think that the result was due to uncontrollable factors. This effect was especially pronounced for participants who believed that they’d won the round: women who believe that they’d won thought that their victory was based on factors that they could not control, such as luck in who they were matched to compete against.
In terms of future research directions, Professor Mollerstrom and her colleagues are interested in whether, if participants know they will be competing against themselves, they undercompete in round one. If so, this finding may limit the contexts in which self-competition would be appropriate. Alternatively, properly calibrated pre-set goals may be an effective middle ground between self- and other-competition. There is a great deal of room to think about how to use competitive institutions – not just other-competition—in more gender-neutral ways that nevertheless preserve the performance-boosting properties of competition.