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Pricing competition: a new laboratory measure of gender differences in the willingness to compete


Experiments have demonstrated that men are more willing to compete than women. We develop a new instrument to “price” willingness to compete. We find that men value a $2.00 winner-take-all payment significantly more (about $0.28 more) than women; and that women require a premium (about 40 %) to compete. Our new instrument is more sensitive than the traditional binary-choice instrument, and thus, enables us to identify relationships that are not identifiable using the traditional binary-choice instrument. We find that subjects who are the most willing to compete have high ability, higher GPA’s (men), and take more STEM courses (women).

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  1. Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) inspired a series of laboratory experiments to test the robustness and limits of their seminal finding. For example, researchers have (a) manipulated subjects’ beliefs by providing subjects with feedback regarding their relative performance (e.g., Cason et al. 2010; Wozniak et al. 2014); (b) used tasks that are not stereotypically-male (e.g., Grosse and Riener 2010; Kamas and Preston 2009; Wozniak et al. 2014); (c) explicitly controlled for risk preferences (e.g., Cason et al. 2010; Wozniak et al. 2014); and (d) employed proportional winner-take-all payments (e.g., Cason et al. 2010). While this body of research has illustrated circumstances under which Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) does not hold, the main finding (that men are significantly more willing than women to compete in stereotypically-male tasks) has been replicated repeatedly (see Niederle and Vesterlund (2011) for a thorough review of the literature).

  2. We ran three pilot sessions with 36 subjects in the summer of 2012. The pilot sessions did not include the five additional tasks that are described in item (5) above. The pilot data is not included in the analysis.

  3. The only exception is Column 3 of Table 1: when these three groups are dropped, there is no significant difference in the task-1-to-2 performance-improvement of women who choose WTA versus PR payment in task 3.

  4. In Ifcher and Zarghamee (2015) we explore subjects’ willingness to compete in a task without agency. 100 subjects completed tasks 6–10 first and tasks 1–5 s. Generally, gender differences are not as stark in tasks 6–10 as in tasks 1–5. As we are primarily focused on the new instrument in this paper, we do not include the 100 subjects who completed the task without agency first and the summation task second in the analysis in this paper.

  5. During task 2 one female subject raised her hand and reported that she could not enter an answer to a summation question into the computer. The experimenter walked over to her computer and entered the answer for her without a problem. After that she did not report any problems entering answers into the computer. The experimenter told her that if task 2 was selected as the payment task her payment would be adjusted. Task 2 was not selected as a payment task for the session.

  6. We control for task-3 performance, as subjects choose their task-4 PR-equivalent before completing task 4, and thus, could not be influenced by their task-4 performance. The coefficients on female and performance are similar if we control for task-2 or -4 performance. Also, the relationship between task-4 PR-equivalents and task-3 performance is similar if we topcode the task-3 performance of the outlier who submitted 49 correct summations per task to the next-best performance, 20 correct summations; this suggests the performance-result is not driven by the outlier.

  7. We control for task-3 performance, task-3 self-rank, and task-11 certainty equivalents in all subsequent regressions.

  8. Examining the relationship between willingness to compete and participation in high school varsity sports, we regress task-4 PR-equivalents on participation in high school varsity sports. We find that the relationship is negative and insignificant for both men and women (men: b = −0.23, p = 0.21, and women: b = −0.05, p = 0.66). One possible explanation for the negative relationship might be that high school varsity athletes learn to be less overconfident through competing and inevitably losing—an effect that may be especially strong for low-performing men, since they can be the most overconfident. In our sample we find support for this explanation: high school varsity athletes rank themselves lower than non-athletes, a difference that is larger for men (1.9 vs. 1.2, p = 0.01) than for women (2.4 vs. 2.2, p = 0.35), and is largest for men whose task-3 performance is below the median (2.3 vs. 1.4, p = 0.05). Restricting the regression to men with task-3 performance below the median, we find that the coefficient on high school varsity participation is negative and marginally significant (b = −0.47, p = 0.08): participation in high school varsity athletics is associated with a $0.47 decrease in task-4 PR-equivalent for low-performing men.


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We wish to thank seminar participants at Claremont Graduate University and Loyola Marymount University for their helpful comments. Lara Moulton and Marianne Farag provided excellent research assistance. Financial support from the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University is gratefully acknowledged. Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund were kind enough to share their z-Tree program with us. The authors contributed equally to this work.

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Correspondence to Homa Zarghamee.

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Ifcher, J., Zarghamee, H. Pricing competition: a new laboratory measure of gender differences in the willingness to compete. Exp Econ 19, 642–662 (2016).

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  • Willingness-to-compete
  • Competitiveness
  • Gender differences
  • Relative payoff
  • Piece-rate equivalents

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • J16
  • J24