Are Men Really More Competitive Than Women?

The conventional wisdom holds that men and women have different abilities when it comes to competition (a view that’s certainly being challenged in the current Democratic primary). Labels like “lacking the killer instinct,” “peacemaker,” and “avoiding confrontation” are commonly assigned to women in competitive environments, while the supposed male knack for thriving in competition is cited as a reason for the persistent wage gap between the sexes.

But is an enhanced or decreased competitive drive a result of biology, or simply a culturally instilled trait? University of Chicago professors Uri Gneezy and John List and Columbia professor Kenneth Leonard performed a controlled experiment to test this question, and published their results in the new working paper, “Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence From a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society.”

Their method consisted of studying two distinct social groups: the Maasai in Tanzania, a “textbook example of a patriarchal society” in which women and children are considered “property,” and the Khasi in India, who are matrilineal, meaning female-dominated through inheritance laws, household authority, and social structures — though still distinct from “matriarchal,” since, as the authors point out, “the sociological literature is almost unanimous in the conclusion that truly matriarchal societies no longer exist.”

Gneezy, List, and Leonard tested the competitive drives of 155 subjects, male and female, by gathering groups of men and women from both tribes, offering them money in exchange for participation in an experiment, separating them into individual rooms, and then giving them tasks like tossing a tennis ball into a bucket 10 times. Each subject was told that he or she was competing against an unnamed rival in another room, and was given a choice of payment options: receive either a) “X per successful shot, regardless of the performance of the participant from the other group with whom they were randomly matched;” or b) “3X per successful shot if they outperformed the other participant.” Their results are summarized as follows:

Our experimental results reveal interesting differences in competitiveness: in the patriarchal society women are less competitive than men, a result consistent with student data drawn from Western cultures. Yet, this result reverses in the matrilineal society, where we find that women are more competitive than men. Perhaps surprisingly, Khasi women are even slightly more competitive than Maasai men, but this difference is not statistically significant at conventional levels under any of our formal statistical tests.

While plenty of studies have contrasted the competitive drives of men and women, few, if any, have isolated subjects who’ve spent their lives blissfully free of Western (and Eastern, for that matter) cultural biases about gender. Now if we could only test how the Khasi women fare in corporate law firms

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  1. Commenter says:

    Quite an intriguing insight, although I do wonder how representative this risk experiment is of risk in a business environment.

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  2. Bill says:

    Inasmuch as I’ve thought of this topic, I’ve always considered women more driven and competitive than men. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in our modern era, with women outperforming men in most subjects at school and with very athletic and dedicated female relatives.

    Tim Harford’s book touches on this a bit.

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  3. flighty says:

    This experiment seems to be a bit controlled. The rewards are not really the rewards men seek in being competitive with each other.

    Throughout most of history men have had to compete intensely with each other to have access to women. This is especially true in patriarchal societies. Acess to women were the true reward for power, money and influence. This makes sense given that men are the more genetically disposable.

    It’s not that women are less competitive, but the rewards (genetically and historically) for women entering into men’s competitive fields were not as great. Women often competed with each other in terms of beauty (beauty products have been around since the time of cavemen and women) and getting the best mate.

    The times have certianly been changing though. The reality is that there is still more rewards (namely women) for being a successful man than a successful woman. Men are still more attracted to beauty than power and it’s going to be like that for a long time

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  4. Josh says:

    One wonders if you (they?) don’t have the causation backwards here. If we assume that being the sex that is “in charge” makes you more competitive, then we’re still left with the question of why this is one of the few (only?) matrilineal societies. What happened in the past that led them to diverge from nearly all other societies?

    However, if we assume the causation runs the other way – that being more competitive causes your sex/group to “dominate” (which certainly seems plausible in and of itself) – then that question is answered. Of course we’re still left with the question of why the women in this society are more competitive than the men, but at least we can hope that genetics will explain it (e.g sort of like how baldness is more common in men then women, but women can still be bald, etc.).

    Either way, this is an interesting result.

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  5. adrienne says:

    Apparently those asking the question haven’t been attending any preschooler playgroups lately.


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  6. AaronS says:

    Speaking of competitive, I may be the only person on earth that knows (or has the politically-incorrect courage to answer the following question: “Why don’t women rule the world?”

    If I understand right, there’s more women than men, they are every bit as intelligent, and so forth.

    Are men keeping them down? Well, that a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? If it is indeed the case, that means that here are these intelligent ladies who can’t figure out how to get out of the box that us no-smarter-then-them men have crafted.

    No, I’ll tell you the reason (and if you’ll read the blog associated with the “Celebrity Apprentice” show, it will hint at this also).

    It’s because women cannot get along with women.

    That sounds totally sexist. Yet while there are surely many notable exceptions, that has been my observation from the fifth grade.

    Fifth grade? Yes. That’s when my teacher said that she would rather teach boys than girls. That made no sense to me, sine I would have figured that a female teacher would have preferred to teach girls. I asked why. The teacher advised that while boys can fight and quickly make-up, if girls have a run-in, they never forgive or forget.

    Very simply, if you have a team made up of up-and-coming women…well, I need not tell many of you that that is a recipe for problems. They are every bit as competitive as men in such an environment, I believe. Yet let someone say something hateful or let them butt heads, and there will either be trouble then…or it will come back at some future point, served cold.

    Men? Hey, we can fuss and feud like anyone else, but there is apparently some hard-wiring in us that helps us to move on without the desire to sabotage everything accomplished.

    If we believe that Shakespeare had keen insight into humanity, then one need only read of Lady Macbeth or Henry VI’s queen (Margaret) or Gloucesters wife (Eleanor) to see how competitive woman are…and how they have some difficulty tolerating another woman being ahead of them.

    Now, this is certainly not a scientific theory…and yet, over and over, I see it hold up.

    But if women ever get past this, enabling them to create effective networks of women (who in turn hire and promote other women), then we will see a true competition between the sexes. And I’m afraid the Amazon’s will win!

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  7. Punditus Maximus says:

    I’m actually pretty surprised by that. Neat.

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  8. Darshanand says:

    I don’t agree with the manner in which this study was conducted. The potential payoff for competing against the unknown opponent is much greater than the potential payoff of not competing.

    It could just be that the dominant sex in either society felt obligated to pursue the greater expected payoff. The other group could have been more risk averse due to their position as the subordinate sex.

    Wouldn’t payoffs of X and 2X give us a better idea of competition between the sexes?

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