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The two sides of competitiveness

I am a big fan of Wellesley College.  It is, after all, my Alma Mater and my place of employment. Because of this, I feel like I need to understand the single most negative attribute of the place from the student perspective: its “competitiveness.”

Wellesley is dubbed a “competitive college” simply based on admission criteria: high SAT scores, excellence in high school academics and in extracurricular activities.  This results in selection: women who end up here are not random, but rather identified by certain common characteristics, one of which is most likely some level of “competitiveness.” In behavioral economics, we define competitiveness exactly in this way: it is the willingness of an individual to enter tournaments.  When students apply to Wellesley, they choose to enter a sort of tournament, where there are winners and losers. From a multitude of experiments, including my own, we know that women are, on average, less willing to enter competitions, especially when the deck is stacked against them due to gender-stereotypes. However, when it comes to Wellesley, the women who are here have already entered and won the tournament! This means that the entry decision cannot be the sole source of the “competitiveness” they are experiencing.

So, what is the part of “competitiveness” that the definition based solely on tournament entry has missed? I believe that the second part of “competitiveness” is related to the anxiety one feels when rated or ranked regardless of whether there is anything to “win” or “lose” in absolute terms.  Examples include grades, class ranking, and Latin honors.  For example, passing grades range from D (low) to A (high).  A grade is interpreted (subjectively) as an imperfect signal of success or failure.  The more likely you are to only view the very top rating as “success,” the more competitive you are in this sense. In other words, some individuals may read a B+ as success, while some read a B+ in the same course as failure.  You may think of this kind of competitiveness as setting too high a bar for what you consider success, or, on the flip side, imagining failure where there is none.

Being “competitive,” as in entering tournaments rather than shying away from an opportunity, is mostly a desirable trait that helps you get promotions and reach your goals. But being “competitive,” as in often imagining failure, is a trait that we should train the brain to avoid.  Remember the joke that goes something like this: “What do you call a person who received all Cs in medical school? Doctor!” By being competitive and reading only A's to mean success, we potentially avoid occupations and activities that we could truly enjoy and find successful in absolute terms. We are also much more miserable overall.

There is a new phenomenon taking place on college campuses, where students are encouraged to embrace and even welcome failure. I love this, because failure – the real variety – is a part of life, and coping with it is a major skill we all should master as early as possible. However, we should also teach students not to invent additional ‘fake’ failures that stem from a kind of competitiveness that causes a pessimism and self-doubt.

Sadly, women may be prone to suffer disproportionately from the latter kind of competitiveness.  Claudia Goldin has anecdotal evidence of this, in the context of students choosing whether to major in economics after taking an introductory economics course at Harvard.  While men with B grades were likely to major in economics, women with B grades didn’t continue with the subject.  Did women read the B as failure, while men read it as success? More research is necessary to tell for sure, but if the answer is yes, then this may also explain why women tend to shy away from entering competitive environments in the first place.  It is rational to avoid situations where you expect that failure (fake or otherwise) is inevitable. 

So, what’s the practical advice I give to Wellesley students? Take a chance by entering a competition; don’t invent fake failure once you are there; learn from and move on from real failure; repeat…

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