Monday, April 8, 2013

Competitive behavior by gender: jumping to conclusions

Men are more competitive than women. Whether this is genetic or nurtured is much studied and occasionally discussed here (I, II, III). I do not think there are definitive answers because it is very difficult to find an environment where one can pursue a truly controlled experiment. If we keep adding varied studies, however, we could get to a clearer picture and finally understand whether girls are at a disadvantage in a competitive environment and need to be helped.

An interesting recent study is by René Böheim and Mario Lackner who study jumping competitions. In high jump and pole vault competitions, athletes fail out after three successive misses and need to choose heights strategically as the competition evolves. They do not want to jump too much, especially as they need to keep their best jumps for last. But it is also risky to skip many heights, as one may start with three misses on a bad day. Interestingly, the strategic choices of men and women differ. Men take more risky decisions despite the fact that the return to risk is lower. What is particularly interesting here is that men and women differ in a context where they do not interact. Were they to compete against each other (applying the appropriate handicap), women would appear to be less competitive.

So is this study compelling evidence of innate differences? No. First, the women competing in jumping competitions were still raised in an uncontrolled environment. Second, we are only looking at elite athletes here, and analyzing the extreme tail of an unknown distribution does not help in making conclusions about the general population. And third, I think even the membership in this distribution tail is not equivalent. It is well-known that much fewer women participate in competitive sports, and they likely face less competition. In a winner-takes-all context, as a consequence you do not need to be that risk-taking.

3 comments:

FredR said...

"it is very difficult to find an environment where one can pursue a truly controlled experiment."

The sociologist Steven Goldberg pointed out that cases of people who are biologically male but raised (since infancy) as female provide pretty good natural experiments to test this sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

Well, good luck finding a large enough sample for this.

rené böheim said...

Thank you for your comments on our paper, they are very much appreciated.

Please let me allow a few short remarks:
(i) we do not make a claim that this is evidence on innate differences in risk-taking behavior, we might well see female athletes changing their behavior as coaches change their training; we do however make a claim that if risk-taking is rewarded in the market, observed differences might be driven by different levels of risk-taking.

(ii) "only elite athletes"--yes, we are aware that these athletes are not necessarily a random sample of the population; however, we are still puzzled at finding such stark differences, after all, these are the best jumpers in the world; and, as we show, these women could benefit from changing their behavior. In addition, we have not seen a change in strategic behavior over the last decade.

(iii) Yes, the differences could be driven by different selection into competitive sports (in that risk-taking female athletes rather opt for, say, figure skating than for track-and-field), we do discuss this in the paper. Any thoughts on how to measure risk-taking in the field (observational data) are highly welcome!

René