science of us

What’s the Point of Winning?

Out for blood. Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images

Is victory achieving a personal best or seeing the look of defeat on an enemy’s face?

The studies about gender differences rage on, with one of the latest concluding that women are more willing to compete against themselves than against others, and that this could have “important policy implications, especially when considering the gender pay gap.”

In the paper, called “Gender Differences in Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Competitive Behavior,” the researchers build on dozens of earlier studies on the same topic, including one called “No Gender Difference in Willingness to Compete When Competing Against Self,” which two of the three authors detailed last year in a fun New York Times opinion piece emphasizing that “Women Do Like to Compete — Against Themselves.”

And although this latest paper, published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, is compelling (“women are more likely to compete against themselves, [but] they work harder when competing against others”), I’m suspicious of the underlying assumption — throughout these types of studies — that competition is inherently good, and that women’s disinclination to engage in interpersonal competition is somehow a flaw.

In their conclusion, the authors suggest that there may indeed be a missing factor (emphasis mine):

Our results suggest that women should be outcompeting men in jobs for which advancement depends heavily on work done while alone and that are not directly interpersonally competitive, such as academic research or law. That women occupy relatively few high-level positions in those fields suggests that either women’s intrapersonal competitive preferences differ in the real world, or other competing forces are actively keeping women from competing against themselves in these jobs. The results of this study suggest that those forces are stronger than previously believed.

One factor might be that women might tend to avoid competing against others not because we feel unconfident, necessarily, but also because engaging in zero-sum win-loss scenarios can undermine greater, harder-to-quantify goals, such as living peacefully and getting along with our peers.

Many studies, including this one, also refer to women’s “reticence” to ask for raises or promotions. But if we’re making enough money to live on and be “happy,” whatever that number might look like (a 2010 Princeton study pegged it at $75,000 a year, although adjusted for current cost of living that might be more like $85,000, depending where you live), what is the rationale behind asking for more? What are the objective benefits? My theory is that there’s an internal, intuitive scale that’s hard to describe or quantify, but that tells a woman (or anyone) that if she asks for more money, she’ll feel the need to do more or put more pressure on herself to feel worthy of it — and sometimes, for whatever reason, doing so doesn’t always feel appropriate. It’s more complicated than simply being too shy to throw down.

Maybe a future study could flip the script and ask, “Why are men so eager to win time-consuming, low-paying mathematics tournaments?” Although typing it out like that suddenly brings to mind the pleasures of HQ.

Of course, it’s all probably a combination of these factors, and to each their own — and as the Medium Chill guy devastatingly pointed out, maybe earned money really does improve life satisfaction (if not happiness).

That being said, my No. 1 goal is to destroy my new co-worker Katie Heaney, who seems especially relaxed at this moment.

What’s the Point of Winning?