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The point of a competition is to win, or so one would think. A recent McGill study shows that for men - or at least young boys - the point of a competition is to compete.
Educational psychology PhD graduate Roseanne Roy and Professor Joyce Benenson, director of Applied Developmental Psychology, Educational and Counselling Psychology, devised two games for small groups of four children to play. One was a traditional game in which the first person to collect a certain number of beads won. The other was non-competitive, in that everyone could win if they collected a certain number of beads in a certain time frame. The researchers studied kindergarten and grade four students drawn from local schools, who were grouped by gender. The study was part of Roy's doctoral dissertation.
"We focused on children because unlike adults they tend to be less cognizant of their intentions and less likely to modify their behaviour to appear socially appropriate," said Roy.
That behaviour, in the competitive context, meant that the children could benefit from taking beads from their opponents, rather than the general pile. This strategy both increased their beads and decreased the beads of the other children.
"In one context it makes absolute sense to take from somebody else, because only the first person who gets to the finish mark wins. In the other (non-competitive) context it makes no sense whatsoever to take from someone else, in fact it might even be counterintuitive, just because you might get some retaliation," explained Benenson.
"We got no gender differences in kindergarten - everybody was so excited about the competition that 30 percent on average [of the time] they took from their opponents, regardless of the context."
But the researchers discovered much sharper differences in the older students. Boys, they found, engaged in competitive behaviour even when there was no advantage to do so. Girls would only compete when there was some benefit to it.
"The girls in the competitive situation were very nervous," said Benenson, explaining that the researchers used a response/monitoring system called the facial attention measure.
"Before they would go to take from the other person, they would look at the other person. They were very, very concerned with the other person's feelings," she said. "As soon as they could forgo the competition part of it, they did."
Benenson hastened to add that although girls are less comfortable with competition, it shouldn't be assumed that they are less competitive. "They compete, and they're excited, and they're really happy to win. But there's a second overlay and that's a sense that perhaps the other girls won't like you so much.
"For some reason I think they can regulate their relationships in a way that they don't take to be self-defeating. It's a part of who they are."
Roy, now an associate professor of psychology at California State University, said her research has clear implications in the classroom and childcare setting.
"One implication our results may have is that if we want females to have equal rights to limited resources in the classroom, past research and our results demonstrate they may be better off in same-sex settings where females are more likely to compete and gain access to limited resources. However, even when resources are plentiful so it doesn't make sense to compete, our findings indicate that males, compared to females, will continue to engage in competitive behaviours, thus again limiting the opportunity for females to gain access to resources."