2004 April 23 Friday
Competition, Resentment, Demotivation, And Large Status Hierarchies

Over at Marginal Revolution Alex Tabarrok cites a research paper Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences (PDF format), which studies how men and women perform in maze tournaments. Women perform worse than men on average but even worse when playing against men.

The authors compare male and female performance at solving mazes across different incentive systems. In a simple piece-rate system men perform slightly but not markedly better than women, on average the men solved 11.23 mazes in 15 minutes compared to 9.73 for the women, a difference of 1.5. But in a tournament, in which only the highest-paid performer wins, the men significantly improve their performance and the women hardly improve at all. As a result, the gender-gap in performance rises (men complete 15 mazes, the women only 10.8 for a difference of 4.2, stat. significant at p=0.034).

Now here is where it gets really interesting. One might think that this shows that women are less competitive than men. To test this the authors run single-sex tournaments. Surprisingly, in the single-sex tournaments the women's performance improves considerably relative to both their performance in the piece rate system and to their performance in the mixed tournament. Women do like to compete just not against men! Men's performance stays about the same as in the mixed tournament. As a result, when comparing the peformance of the all-male groups versus the all-female group, the gender gap shrinks considerably.

Click through to see the graph that illustrates the results.

One very plausible interpretation of the results: People will not compete as hard when they think their odds of winning are low. While that certainly has implications for differences in outcomes between the sexes it has broader implications for a large number of other situations where groups differ in average levels of skills, innate abilities, physical attractiveness, and other qualities. To boost productivity an argument can be made for creating separate social and work spheres where women and men or any two groups with different average levels of accomplishment would avoid competing across groups.

One aspect of modern society with, I think, unappreciated implications is that mass communications and mass transportation are putting more people in direct competition with each other. The most enthusiastic advocates of free markets see this trend as an unalloyed blessing. In their minds the more competition the better. But I think this viewpoint misses a fundamental fact of human nature: Most people want to feel like winners. (possible exceptions: some depressives and some people who have a great deal of natural contentment) Well, the bigger status hierarchies get the less chance any one person can be on or near the top.

This strikes me as having all sorts of highly problematic ramifications. Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of celebrity. As compared to most people celebrities are better looking, more successful, have higher status, and live what are portrayed as more exciting lives. Ever seen the TV show (forget whether it is on MTV or VH1) which is based on the theme of "It is good to be..."? Each episode has a theme where, for example, "It is good to be Britney Spears" or "It is good to be Jennifer Lopez". The personal possessions, money, and exciting lives of these people are shown in the most flattering terms. Many people who obsess about celebrities feel frustrated by either their inability to form real relationships with celebrities or their inability to be as successful and as loved as celebrities.

The ability to see celebrities and their possessions is just an extreme example of a more general phenomenon: the ability to compare oneself to many more people. One can compare one's friends, spouse, lovers (or lack thereof) to what more other people have. In a neolithic village of 30 or 40 people one could not feel that one was inferior to all that many people because so few were there in the first place. The odds that there was someone who had a better looking wife or a better hut were a whole lot lower than they are today. The amount of perceived relative deprivation was probably far less than it is today even as the amount of absolute deprivation was far greater back in the neolithic era.

Look at the hatred and resentment that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists feel toward the United States and other Western nations. Would as many of them feel as much animosity if there was no television, no movies, no photographs, and no airplanes that could take them to see what other people have in distant lands? I'm not arguing this resentment is the sole cause of their animosity. Their feelings arise from a complex set of factors including the practice of consanguineous marriage and Islamic beliefs. But the ability of people to compare themselves to more other people and to feel to be of lower status as compared to more people must generate resentments and even demoralization due to comparisons that would not have been possible in the past.

One advantage of the rise of a large number of special interests which are not shared by all members of society is that these interests provide people with smaller arenas in which to compete and seek status. The large variety of forms of competitive sports such as hot rod racing, golf, tennis, football, basketball, distance running, bicycling, and sail boat racing each provide an area in which a unique group of people can be the winners. Differences in values about what is important also provide opportunities for the creation of other kinds of subcultures based on purely intellectual achievements which produce their own unique status hierarchies. For instance, Linux open source developers can rank each other in an area where they collectively have decided what achievement is important. Also, scientists can compete for status in their professions and for awards such as the Nobel Prize.

However, in spite of the proliferation of new areas of pursuit of status we are still left with a trend toward more direct competition between growing numbers of people. This may be creating greater feelings of passivity and demoralization in some segments of the population. Are we then headed toward a future that will be characterised as an age of resentment? I'd very much like to hear your comments on this.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 April 23 11:09 AM  Human Nature

MichaelA said at April 23, 2004 12:39 PM:

1) Jean Raspail's Camp of the Saints explores this issue presciently.

2)The advent of blogging has given me intellectual envy, as I read the thoughts of so many people, so much smarter than myself on a daily basis.

razib said at April 23, 2004 5:35 PM:

age of resentment? no, because those who feel like losers & resent will have fewer kids because they feel down on themselves. only the cheerfully mediocre will reproduce :) and of course, those with success don't have times for kids!

A Berman said at April 23, 2004 7:44 PM:

Did anyone watch The Apprentice? It started out as an all-woman team vs. an all-men team. The women won four-in-a-row. Once "The Donald" mixed up the teams, the women fell apart as 7 women in a row got fired.

And NO, the women didn't win just because they used sex, though they did. They planned better and had better ideas. The men's team made major mistakes in each of the first four episodes.

I know it's not a double-blind experiment, but it was interesting.

andursonne said at April 24, 2004 1:13 PM:

This reminds me of the educational research that has found something it called "stereotype threat". When some racial groups feel they are competing only against themselves, they perform on average much much better than they do when they're competing against other groups. Meaning that if you tell a group of black students that the copy of the SAT they are taking is specifically designed for them so as not to be biased, the racial gap in scores dramatically decreases.

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2004 1:53 PM:

Andursonne, I've read some pretty effective critiques of the research you cite that claim the subjects knew what result the researchers wanted to get and behaved accordingly.

Ricky Vandal said at April 24, 2004 4:30 PM:

Does this mean women are dumb?

Luke Lea said at April 24, 2004 7:24 PM:

Are we headed for a new age of resentment? I certainly hope not. In many ways, the 20th century was the century of resentment. Both communism and nazism fed on feelings of popular resentment that were free-floating in nature, but based I think (especially communsism) on feelings of class resentment growing out of the aristocratic past.

Anyway, your suggestion that tv images of bourgeous comfort and consumerism in the West is feeding resentment on the part of the left-out in the Islamic world is interesting. In this country, the rich often keep a deliberately low profile, but Madison Avenue and the realities of Hollywood make that impossible for the upper middle class lifestyle that so many Americans strive for. The irony, of course, is that this lifestyle is not nearly so fulfilling as it appears -- but one never finds that out til he gets there. So what to do? I myself have been advocating a much more materially-moderate but leisure-rich way of life based on the concept of universal part-time employment. In a nutshell, both parents would work part-time doing routine wage work and in their free time would build their own houses, have gardens, raise their own kids, cook and eat at home, and take care of their aged parents and grandparents, who would live under a separate roof and the other end of the garden in a kind of extended family homestead (1 or 2 acres). People would not retire at any set age, but would continue working for as long as they were able, taking easier jobs as their strength declines. There would be no nursing homes (you die at home in your bed, surrounded by your family), no daycare, and a lot less fast food. Small towns of from ten to thirty thousand could develope around industrial parks located out beyond exurbia, based on families and neighborhoods living this way. Their would be more walking, bicycles, and low-speed econo cars for shopping in a central mall of some sort, with regular high-speed cars available to rent for trips to the city or further afield. If such a lifestyle were humanly satisfying (its more or less the way I live myself) then, I think, there would be a less cause for resentment and envy. Who gives a shit about all that glitter if you've got a good things going in your own neck of the woods?

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2004 8:07 PM:


The problem is that most people want more stuff and more status. At the same time every company that sells consumer goods and services has a vested interest in running advertisements portraying the good life as enabled by their goods and services. You can advocate for a different style of life but your message is competing with a lot of other messages that are telling people to think in ways inconsistent with what you are advocating.

Nursing homes: But taking care of old folks takes huge amounts of work and a lot of their kids are either unwilling or unable to provide that care.

Day care: But many mothers want to work or if they are single or the husband isn't making enough then they need to work.

Fast food: I agree with Tyler Cowen that the quality of fast food is going to increase dramatically.

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2004 8:11 PM:

Ricky Vandal, you Jenna Bush lover you,

It is not a simple matter of which sex is smarter. Women are, on average, better at verbal and human relations skills. Men are better at math and some of the economically more valuable spatial reasoning skills. But motivation and values and people react to different forms of competition play a bigger role.

Women are not earning as much in part because they aren't as motivated to pursue some of the higher paying jobs. For instance, in medicine they gravitate toward family practice or pediatrics while men aim for some of the higher-paying specialties. Men are putting money at a higher priority in their decision-making about careers.

Bob Badour said at April 25, 2004 9:26 AM:


I find your idea rather pollyanna-ish. I heard a lot of that back in the eighties with predictions of smaller work-weeks etc. The working week grew and worker responsibilities grew. Productivity grew and the least productive went on the dole while the rest of us worked harder.

You may find your lifestyle rewarding, but most of humanity apparently disagree with you. I think it is well-known that most people tie their own self-images and ideas of self-worth to their ability to produce. Most of humanity will just accept the competitive advantages they have over you and strive for more.

Luke Lea said at April 25, 2004 6:40 PM:

Bob Badour and Randall,

I know it sounds hopelessly utopian, and maybe it is. I will say, however, that I did a Gallup Poll back in the mid-1970's, when I first got this idea, and two-thirds of the country expressed an interest in living this way, either "definitely" or "probably." As for ideas of self-worth and the ability to produce, building one's own house (even with some professional help) is one of the most satisfying things there is for a lot of people (not saying its for everybody, btw, and most likely not for you two: but I am thinking in terms of average joes). Taking care of people when they get old does sound icky -- unless they happen to be the people you care about more than anyone in the world, namely, your own family. A couple of years ago my favorite maiden aunt died in our home; we had lots of help (hospice in particular) and it was the singly most rewarding experience in my life. Besides, which way would you prefer to die: in a nursing home being cared for by strangers, or surrounded by the only voices on earth that can really give you comfort?

As for corporations having a vested interest in consumerism, etc., this is just one more form of consumerism: what's being consumed here is leisure and quality time doing the stuff that gives the most pleasure: eating and talking and playing with our kids, hanging out, doing chores, etc. Corporations compete against each other all the time, with no quarter given (think of what Wal-Mart did to small-town America; and then to K-Mart). It's a never ending story.

Bob Badour said at April 25, 2004 9:29 PM:

I hope to stay around until the sun goes nova (or maybe a little longer.) I suppose my second choice would involve some girl's jealous boyfriend. If I cannot have either of my top two choices, I hope I go quickly in a tragic sleeping accident.

ANOTHERGENIUS said at April 27, 2004 9:12 AM:

Amy Chua's book `World on fire' has exactly the same argument.

anothergenius said at April 27, 2004 9:15 AM:

Amy Chua's book `World on fire' has exactly the same argument.

Randall Parker said at April 30, 2004 12:19 AM:

I've posted previously on Amy Chua's argument and her book. Yes, I've certainly been influenced by her arguments. Though her arguments don't seem as original to me as they seem to others. Many years ago I read some of Thomas Sowell's books about racial preferences and conflicts between minority and majority groups around the world. But my guess is that Sowell was not read much by liberals and so Chua's arguments seem more new to them. She's certainly performed a useful service by updating that argument and writing to a different audience.

Speaking of Sowell, I ought to write a blog post on his latest book abour racial and ethnic preferences in 5 different countries.

Agricola said at May 3, 2004 5:40 AM:

But why should I compare myself with celebrities? Mass culture has also brought a huge number of people to my attention who are far inferior to me on many different scales.

Nietzsche said at May 6, 2004 10:10 PM:

"What is good? Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.

What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness.

What is happiness? The feeling that power increases--that resistance is overcome."

--Nietzsche, The Antichrist (2)

Ed said at June 2, 2004 2:52 PM:

Not sure I agree with your interpretation of resentment -- in a political context, yes, I think there is an opportunity to illuminate one's "schaudenfreude" and exploit it (e.g. class warfare), but in the long run, we've seen that for economic purposes, individuals group together to find optimal outcomes. (Nash equilibrium). Ethnic groups, sexes, religions, nations, whatever.

Separately, and this is from my own acedotal observations after 30 years in business, most successful large organizations recognize the need to see that everyone's boat is lifted. Some, like the database software company Oracle, encourage an all-out "every man for himself" backstabbing environment, but the most successful companies in history -- IBM, for example, find ways to maximize the opportunities for many to succeed, both economically and in terms of peer rewards, which often leads to further success. Bad hires obviously occur, and they are culled from the team over time. But a group that is innately distrustful of one another will disintegrate over the long run.

Darwin said at June 19, 2004 9:34 PM:

I don't have anything useful to add, but this post is quite thought-provoking. Thanks.


Steven Lee said at October 13, 2004 7:58 PM:

For those of you out there looking for more answers try looking at Robert H Frank's book "Choosing the right pond". If you consider the economics of status, yes humans have an inbuilt desire for recognition and acceptance, yes local relativity is more important than whats happening overseas however, the deregulation of world capital and labour markets and the everpresent growing information and communication technology has effectively increased the size of the pond we live in.

If the world economy continues with the capitalist ideal that economic growth is the object of a good society, what hope do we have? The inequality gap is increasing every day. Increased consumption of goods wont improve true happiness (money cant buy love), happiness lies in the interactions between people. Look at whats happening in cuba, Easterlin (1973) showed that cubans have a higher personal happiness ratings than most other world countries yet the gross domestic product/ per head produced in cuba is not very high. If the lower income in cuba doesn't explain why they're so happy perhaps we should not be so concerned about the importance of economic goals for society.

One other thing to remember is that the unbridled competition for status amoung individuals, the need to keep up with the jones's, is important to our health. Many studies have been conducted that show that low status individuals suffer from more bouts of ill health than high status individuals and in many circumstances we as individuals have to compete to keep our sanity.

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