Rich boys more competitive in economic experiments

July 19, 2014 - 06:05

Whereas the gender difference in competitiveness is large among adolescents with high-educated parents, it is non-existent among those from the least educated parents.

The boys tend to compete too much, and not necessarily according to their actual performances. (Illustrative photo: Microstock)

Fifty 14 to 15 years old boys and girls are each sitting in front of a computer in a large hall. NHH’s Choice Lab The Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen,.

The computer hall is a laboratory, and the pupils are about to do math exercises on which they can make money.

The experiment

In order to measure preferences for competitiveness, participants were asked to add sets of four two-digit numbers over a three minute period. For each correct answer, they earned one point.

They earned 50 NOK (6 EUR) if they got at least as many point as the average number of points in the same session, nothing otherwise.

A timer on their computer screen informed the participant of how much time that was left and the number of correct answers was updated each time the participant moved to a new set of four two-digit numbers.

Without getting any feedback on their own productivity relative to the other participants, they were then told to do the same task again for another 3 minutes. This time they were asked to choose whether they wanted be compensated with a fixed piece rate of 1 NOK (0.12 EUR) per correct answer or with 3 NOK (0.36 EUR) per correct answer if they got at least as many points as the average in the first round and nothing otherwise.

The participants were randomly chosen from ten different schools in Bergen, 524 in total.

Striking result

Whereas 51 percent of the boys chose the last alternative – the competitive alternative – only 31 percent of the girls did the same.

“The result is striking,” says Bertil Tungodden, who is one of the behavioural economists behind the study and project leader at The Choice Lab.

“In terms of competitiveness the gender differences are as big here in Norway as in other places in the world.”

Parents' education matters

However, the results of the experiment was later connected to information about the pupils’ family background.

It then became clear that class is an important factor in terms of the boys’ competitiveness.

The gender difference in competitiveness were strongest among children with parents with the highest level of education and is non-existent among children from the least educated parents.

Is competitiveness culturally determined?

The lab experiment on gender and competitiveness in Bergen is inspired by a similar American study from 2007, where 73 per cent of the men chose to compete, against only 35 per cent of the women. This was a groundbreaking study within the field of behavioural economics and similar studies have since been carried out in a number of countries.

A well-known study was carried out among Maasai people in Tanzania, who belong to a highly patriarchal culture, and among the Khasi people in India, which is a matrilineal group. Among the

Maasai people the men were the most competitive. But among the Khasi people women were most competitive, they were even slightly more competitive than the Maasai men.

“Based on these finds it has been argued that competitiveness is culturally determined,” says Tungodden.

“While it is one thing to look at cultures which are extreme in terms of gender differences, what may be found in the most gender equal society in the world? If measures towards gender equality works in regard to competitiveness the gender differences ought to be smaller in countries such as Norway.”

This, however, is not the case.

Bertil Tungodden. (Photo: The Choice Lab)

Could it be that Norway is not as gender equal after all?

“We do have one of the most gender segregated labour markets, so obviously we are not completely gender equal. So perhaps we do make too much of a point of this. Perhaps we exaggerate a bit.”

”But the UN’s Gender Equality Index observes things that are quite particular for Norway,” argues Tungodden.

Nature or nurture?

Tungodden and claims that it is absolutely necessary to identify whether or not the gender gap regarding competitiveness is about women’s low self-esteem, or whether there are innate biological differences at play here which make women less competitive.

He further believes that if biology is the decisive factor, it has consequences for politics.

“Our point is that if the difference in competitiveness is a result of women being discriminated or oppressed it lends legitimacy to politics which aims to balance this difference,” the researcher explains.

“Of course it is never only the one or the other. We believe that both culture and biology are at play here,” he adds.

The lab and the real world

Tungodden compares economic behavioural experiments to medical experiments. In the same way as medics give placebo, an ineffective agent, to control groups, the economists make use of control groups who are not given an agent or who are given another agent than the one which is being investigated.

He is also of the opinion that the lab gives the researchers a high degree of control over the experimental situation.

“The lab provides opportunities to control the situation and to remove many of the arguments for why girls and boys behave differently,” says the professor.

A common critique of lab experiments is that they only show what happens in the lab, not in the real world.

Tungodden argues that the patterns found in the lab often reflect the real world when the lab results are connected to the background data.

Cracking the top executive code

There are dramatic gender differences among the top executives in Norway. Only approximately ten to fifteen per cent of the top executives are women. He willingly repeats the following quote in his lectures: men who ought to play fourth division are playing top division.

“A revolution is required in the business sector in order to recruit more female leaders. We have to crack that code,” he says.

This, however, is not necessarily about women having to become more competitive.

The experiment with the pupils from Bergen showed that the boys tend to compete too much, and not necessarily according to their actual performances.

“The studies indicate that a lack of competitiveness may be a reason why women don’t become top leaders. This does not necessarily mean that they ought to compete more. Perhaps we need to think differently about the way we recruit top leaders. The most competitive candidate is not necessarily the best leader.”

The study in Bergen is still ongoing. When they choose their education and have careers we will find out whether their competitiveness in the lab that day in 2011 predicted their future or not.

Translated by
Cathinka Dahl Hambro

The Choice Lab was recently awarded a large sum of money from the Norwegian Research Council. The aim is to become the best in their field in Europe. Among other things, the funding will be spent on studying why there are such differing attitudes towards whether or not gender quota in boards are fair.

KILDEN has the national responsibility for promotion and information about Norwegian gender research nationally and abroad. Read more

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