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November 24, 2009

Competition and Context

Catherine New
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It’s nurture, not nature. At least when it comes to competition and gender, new research suggests. In a recent column in Slate, professor Ray Fisman discussed a study (PDF) by economists that demonstrates that the competitive male warrior stereotype, prevalent in Western culture, may not be universal.

The study looked at the Khasi community of northeast India, where inheritance and social status are passed through daughters. Khasi women were more competitive than men in the same group when they competed in a ball-toss game, the research showed. Why is that? Fisman writes:

The authors suggest that it may stem from the relatively uncommon practice of female-directed household decision making and inheritance. In the Khasi society, women who learn to compete for resources get to keep the fruits of their efforts, and also pass on the wealth they generate to their daughters. Regardless of the underlying cause … [the study] proves that the Western stereotype of the male competitor isn’t universal: The male “warrior instinct” is a matter of socialization rather than instinct.

Adding another dimension to the competition debate is new research from Pranjal Mehta, a postdoctoral research scholar in the Management division at Columbia Business School, Elizabeth V. Wuehrmann and Robert A. Josephs.

Their study, published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, examined the effect of testosterone on competitive performance. In the study of 30 men and 30 women, participants completed analytical reasoning tests in both individual and intergroup competition. The researchers’ findings showed that the higher the participant’s level of testosterone, the better the performance in individual competition; however, high testosterone had the opposite effect for intergroup competition. In other words, social context appears to moderate the relationship between testosterone and performance.

Taken together, these studies might nudge us closer to the conclusion that the debate is neither nurture nor nature, but some intricate combination therein, where socialized expectations and incentives interplay with physiology. What is the takeaway for management training? Competitive success might be a matter of incentive alignment, not chromosomes.

Photo credit: Vitaliy Khustochka


by Simon Halliday | November 24, 2009 at 4:55 PM

I'd recommend you take a look at two recent papers by Alison Booth and Patrick Nolen (University of Essex): 1) Choosing to compete: http://ideas.repec.org/p/cpr/ceprdp/7214.html 2) Gender differences in risk: http://ideas.repec.org/p/cpr/ceprdp/7198.html Both are good contributions to the literature you cite.

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