Research examines the lengths to which men and women will go to win.

Cheating and sabotage are unfortunate realities of everyday life. But not everyone cheats or undercuts others to the same extent: Gender seems to play a much larger role than you may realize.

We see plenty of destructive, sabotaging behaviors during the height of a political campaign. We hear all sorts of accusations and rumors about the misbehavior of candidates competing for the same elected position; in TV ads, news conferences, and rallies, those running for office frequently cite the misdeeds of their opponents. Sometimes these accusations are fact-based, but often they are distortions of the truth—or actual lies. The dirtier a candidate’s approach, the more likely it is that the campaign will turn ugly; a candidate is sometimes willing to reveal his or her less desirable traits in order to score points with voters. 


Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post's "Post 50" blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CNN, Olbermann.

Editor: Nadeem Noor


You don’t have to focus on the news to see this in action. People on opposing sides of arguments often lie and cheat, throwing someone under the bus in order to avoid being the target of another person’s blame. And children point the finger at other kids when an adult finds a pool of spilled milk on the carpet.

In romantic relationships, couples will lie and cheat to avoid being blamed when things go wrong. You may be the one who started the argument, but you’d prefer to twist things around to preserve your innocence. If a relative discovers that you really were available for a family gathering when you said you weren’t, you may point the finger at your partner rather than take the heat.

To be sure, there are consequences to cheating and sabotaging our romantic partners, but it’s at work, when these behaviors start to cost money, that they take on a different kind of significance. Your livelihood depends on the salary you earn, and if that salary requires you to compete in any sort of way to get ahead (which of course, many do), you need to take advantage of each opportunity that presents itself. This means that you need to make sure you succeed ahead of coworkers scrambling for the same rewards.

How far would you go to outdo your opponents? According to two economists studying this behavior, the answer depends on your gender. University of Bonn’s Simon Dato and University of Stavanger’s Petra Nieken (2014) found that men like to compete more than women, care more about winning, and are therefore more likely to go to the dark side of cheating and sabotaging to achieve their objectives. Dato and Nieken believe that this gender difference in competitive behaviors is reflected in the differential positions of women and men at the top of the professional hierarchy. Women just won’t “go there” the way that men will in order to win a promotion.

To study these possibilities in the lab, the research team set up an experiment in which participants engaged in a “tournament” in which their payoff depended on their effort. The task involved encoding two-digit numbers to each letter of the alphabet when presented with a series of words. Participants were paired up with another player and in the key trials, they had to decide prior to the start of the encoding task how much effort they would exert and whether to deduct pay from their opponents (i.e. sabotage them).

Because each pair was part of a larger team, the decision to engage in sabotage would be costly to the participant, meaning that he or she would have to work harder to make up for it. The way the economists set up the study, the entire team would lose if participants each deducted money from their opponent.

This situation models reality, where sabotage can cost you. Hurting someone else’s chances may mean that the output of your group is diminished, but at least your opponent doesn’t get the reward you are seeking. You’re also more likely to sabotage or cheat if you think your opponent is playing at the same game.

Now we find out what sex has to do with it. There were no gender differences in actual performance on the task, and both men and women improved their encoding ability across trials. However, men chose over twice as many “sabotage points” as women—and women were three times as likely as men to choose zero sabotage points. Both genders believed that if their opponent was male, he would be more likely to sabotage them than if the opponent was female. Because men sabotaged more than females, they were more likely to win, but both genders earned an equal amount of pay. When given the option to cheat, men also availed themselves of this opportunity.

The question still remains as to why there is a gender difference in the dog-eat-dog mentality of competition. Included in the study design was a set of questions meant to tap the values orientations of participants in areas such as achievement, power, and benevolence (unselfishness), as well as their attitudes toward risk. These did not provide an explanation of the sabotage-gender relationship. The only viable explanation was that men like to be the winners.

From these findings, the authors concluded “it is likely that males derived extra utility from winning the competition and were therefore willing to invest money to ensure their victory… Females (were) not willing to invest that much in sabotage. However, they were aware that, on average, their opponents would choose higher levels of sabotage and that males would, on average, choose higher levels of sabotage than female opponents” (p. 75). In fact, 20 percent of the male winners came out on top due to sabotage. Had this been a real job setting, the authors concluded that at least 20 percent of the time a promotion would be granted to a man who didn’t deserve it. 

The upshot of the study is that, especially if you’re a woman, it’s important to identify and examine your attitudes toward winning. Do you stay away from competition at work because you fear sabotage? Do you step back from competition in other settings because you’re sure you’ll be undercut by a man? How about in your relationships? During a dispute with your partner, would you rather back off than pursue what you know in your heart to be the truth? Do you apologize for acts you didn't commit, but then believe you were at fault?

By recognizing what’s holding you back—regardless of your gender—you can better compete for the things you seek. Others may sabotage and cheat their way to the top, but you can still achieve fulfillment on your own, honest terms.

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