A new study provides evidence that women are more likely to employ “levelling” when competing with a higher-performing partner compared to men. Levelling is a tactic aiming to transfer resources from an individual having more resources to one having less, under the explicit guise of equality. The study was published in Evolutionary Psychological Science.
In general, males engage in more contests than females across various domains of social life. Men more often engage in physical contests, but they also more often use verbally combative speech – speech in which they direct, criticize, inform or disagree – compared to women. Studies have indicated that differences between genders in preferences for contests emerge as early as 3 years of age.
On the other hand, reproductive success (whether a person will find a partner and have children) varies much more between males than between females. This initially led researchers to conclude that reproductive competition is fiercer between males and that they have more to gain from competing. However, recent studies on different species have shown that females also obtain survival benefits from competing for resources, allies, mates, or territory.
Indeed, when more indirect ways of competing are considered, studies on humans found no differences between sexes. Qualitative data also indicates that one particular competitive tactic – levelling – might be more common among females than among males. In their new study, authors Joyce F. Benenson and Henry Markovits wanted to explore whether this was the case.
“For more than 30 years, I have noticed that young girls refer to equality a lot in their conversations and refrain from bragging more than young boys do,” explained Benenson, a lecturer in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and author of “Warriors and Worriers.”
“In research using economic paradigms, girls and women are more likely than boys and men to dislike contests with winners and losers all over the world. Likewise, universally in sports competitions, girls and women are less likely than boys and men to play sports with winners and losers.”
“Yet, there are huge advantages to any individual who increases his/her resources or status in terms of health and longevity, including for one’s children. This has been shown universally. So why would girls and women insist on equality? One hypothesis is that it ensures that higher-ranked or higher-performing individuals give up their resources or rank, in other words, that insisting on equality is a competitive strategy.”
“So the question is whether girls and women are insisting on equality as a competitive tactic to reduce higher-ranked same-sex individuals’ outcomes. We therefore designed a study based on a popular economic paradigm in which one option involved forcing a higher-ranked opponent to share resources, so they were split equally with the participant in the study. Women were more likely than men to do this.”
Benenson and Markovits conducted their study using a series of online games in which participants earn points by copying pairs of symbols presented on the screen into a box as fast as they can. They were awarded an amount of money for each correct response and this amount differed in various phases of the game. After the task, participants were informed of the number of pairs they correctly copied.
The series of tasks started with a training task created to help participants understand the rules of the game. This was followed by a baseline task after which participants played 3 rounds with the partner. Before rounds with the partner began, participants were told how the partner they will be playing based on the partner’s purported performed on the baseline task.
However, the “partner” participants played with was of the same sex and fictitious (but participants were not told that the partner was fictitious).
Each participant played one round with a “partner” who had equal score on the baseline task, one with a “partner” who was 30% better, and one with a “partner” who was 30% worse than the participant on the baseline task. Participants were informed of this and asked to select how they wanted to be compensated for their results in the task.
The options were to play alone, where the player would receive 10 cents for each correct answer he/she gives. The partner would also receive 10 cents for each correct answer the partner gives. Equal sharing option meant that correct answers by the player and the “partner” are added together and rewards for the total number of correct answers are shared equally between the participant and the “partner.”
Finally, participant could opt for a winner-take-all contest. In this scheme, the contestant (player or the partner) that gives more correct answers receives 20 cents per each correct answer, while the other contestant receives nothing. After choosing the compensation scheme, participants were asked to select one primary reason for choosing it. The five choices were (1) to not upset the other player, (2) it is fun, (3) to earn the most money, (4) to play it safe, or (5) other (participants could list their own reasons).
In this particular situation, levelling occurs when the player chooses to share the rewards equally in a situation when he/she plays the game with a “partner” that performed better than the player at baseline.
Results showed that participants most often chose the winner-take-all compensation scheme when playing with a lower-performing “partner,” and equal division i.e., levelling strategy when playing with a higher-performing “partner.” Both of these are strategies that maximize the payoffs the participant receives. Equal division was also the most often chosen strategy when players played with an equal “partner”.
When genders were compared, women more often chose the levelling strategy compared to men when playing with a higher-performing “partner.” While equal division was the most common for both genders in this situation, men more often chose the winner-takes-all strategy.
“I was surprised that men choose winner-take-all contests, regardless of whether the opponent is superior to them. Thus, men may prefer losing over switching to a less risky and more rational strategy,” Benenson said.
When playing with a lower-performing partner, women more often chose to play alone, compared to men. Finally, when playing with an equally performing partner, men more often chose the winner-takes-all scheme compared to women. When asked to explain their choices, participants most often answered that they were motivated by desires “to make the most money” and “to play it safe.”
The study challenges the idea that women are less competitive than men. Men are more likely to compete in winner-takes-all contests, but when other forms of competition are considered, women are just as competitive as men. However, men and women differ in their preferred tactic for competing, the researchers said.
“Status differences may be more difficult to accept if you’re a girl or woman than if you are a boy or man,” Benenson added. “One strategy to reduce status differences is to demand equality. My prior work has focused on the greater importance of groups to boys and men, whereas individual relationships are more important to girls and women. Groups typically form hierarchies, so they may be more comfortable to male than female relationships.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of social relationships. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Namely, the rewards participants competed for were small. Additionally, the study was performed online. Participants’ decisions when playing in-person and for more substantial rewards might not be the same.
“The study is simply a game,” Benenson said. “The big question is whether in real life, women really try to “bring down” higher-ranked same-sex individuals more than men do through equalization of outcomes. Further, do women dislike hierarchies more than men do? This has important implications for how we structure organizations.”
“Winner-take-all contests is traditionally the way we define competition. This is the form of many types of male-male competition. However, there may be other ways to compete. Demanding equality may be a different sort of competitive strategy, one that applies more to women.”
The study, “Levelling as a Female‑Biased Competitive Tactic”, was authored by Joyce F. Benenson and Henry Markovits.