Mean Girls

Why are men always viewed as the more competitive? You hear stories about men cutting each other’s throat for the only promotion, fighting each other in a pub car park or trying to outdo one other at the urinals (none of which i will admit to having done). Well, one study at least has come out on the side of equality, showing that females are just as competitive, only doing so in a less overt fashion.

In the age old style of psychological studies, participants were asked to play a game where they could win money. Three options were give: play on your own, form an alliance with one opponent, or cooperate with both. In the last two cases, the player would have to share any rewards won.
So far so good. At this stage of the experiment, there was no difference in behaviour between men and women; the amount of alliance forming was the same.

However, as we all know, psychologists are sneaky. For some of the participants, an extra piece of information was given. Some were told that by choosing to play alone they would “run the risk of being excluded by the two others”, and by playing (and winning) in an alliance “the third player will be excluded and will not win any points.” The framing of the language in terms of social exclusion was enough to create a significant change in behaviour between men and women. Women hearing these statements were much more likely to chose the alliance option than their male counterparts.

Social exclusion has always played a significant role in moderating our behaviour. We, and our primate cousins, are intensly social animals. We live in family groups, have friendship networks, even organise entire political and economic systems based on our mutual interactions. Exlcusion from these systems is a harsh punishment, given out only to those who are deemed to break our social law. Prison and execution are extreme forms of this, but im sure many can empathise with being given the silent treatment. You are effectively excluced from a social relationship, and it feels bad. Many studies have shown correlations between social exclusion and depression (and other neurological conditions).

This should mean that when reminded of social exclusion, both sexes should form alliances more easily. So why should we observe men doing it less? As the authors of the paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, point out “males may endeavor to unilaterally and directly dominate an opponent.” It is in any male’s interest to compete – the rewards he may win outweigh the risks associated with losing. Females, on the other hand, are still competitive, yet use a different strategy to achieve their goals – that of social exclusion.