No wonder parents’ races at school sports days are such fraught affairs. A new study finds that far from us mellowing as we age, our inclination for competition increases through life, peaking around the age of 50.
Prior to their data collection, Ulrich Mayr and his colleagues had several reasons for expecting that preference to compete would peak in youth and fade thereafter. They cited reductions in testosterone with age; the documented shift with age to a more prosocial orientation (older people give more money to charity); an age-related shift to a mastery (rather than comparison) approach to skills; and age-related falls in confidence, perhaps based on actual cognitive declines with age.
The researchers set up a stall at a shopping mall and invited volunteers to solve mental arithmetic equations (e.g. “true or false: 7 + 2 + 3 – 6 = 5”) as quickly as possible in return for points. Points were exchanged for modest cash prizes. The 543 participants (aged 25 to 75), in private booths, completed one round lasting 30-seconds in which they earned more points the more equations they solved. They then completed a second “competitive” round, in which they only earned points for solving more equations than a randomly chosen rival. Participants didn’t get feedback on their performance until the experiment was over. Finally – and this was the crucial round – the participants could choose for the final round whether to play solo (known as “piece-rate”), like they had in the first round, or whether to compete once again against another randomly chosen participant. Afterwards participants estimated how well they thought they’d done, as a measure of their confidence.
There were some clear gender effects, consistent with past research. Women were far less likely than men to opt for the competitive version in the final round (correction: 36 per cent vs. 56 per cent). And there were clear age effects across both genders: the taste for competition against others increased with age, levelling off at about the age of 50. For example, nearly 70 per cent of men aged 45 to 54 opted to compete versus just over 50 per cent of men aged 25 to 34.
What lies behind the gender effects? Men and women performed equally well at the task under piece-rate conditions, but the women’s performance did drop slightly in the competitive version. Women were also less confident than men. Women’s confidence, unlike men’s, was also related to their choice of whether to compete or not (men chose to compete without consideration of their likelihood of winning!). However, none of these factors was sizeable enough to explain the size of the gender difference in choice to compete.
What about the effects of age on preference for competition? There was no difference in actual performance with age. Changes in confidence also couldn’t explain the age-related change. A potential explanation comes from a recent meta-analysis, which found that the trait of “social dominance” increases with age until the 50s. Said Mayr and his team: “Successfully engaging in competitions is critical for establishing social dominance and therefore it is plausible to assume that with such an increased interest in social dominance comes an increased ‘taste for competition.”
One important caveat needs to be mentioned. Because this was a cross-sectional study, it’s possible that it’s not age that’s related to competitiveness but rather the era that the participants grew up in – or something else to do with their particular generation. To get around this problem, participants would need to be followed up throughout their lives, to see if their taste for competition changes as they age. However, the researchers can’t see any reason why the fifty-somethings’ upbringing should have led them to be more competitive than the 30-somethings. Yes, Baby Boomers are known for their competitiveness but 30-year-olds grew up in a prolonged economic downturn that might have increased their competitive tendencies.
What about you – have you found that your taste for competition has altered as you’ve aged? Or looking at your friends and family, do these results fit with your own experiences of their competitiveness? Please use comments to let us know.
Mayr, U., Wozniak, D., Davidson, C., Kuhns, D., and Harbaugh, W. (2011). Competitiveness across the life span: The feisty fifties. Psychology and Aging DOI: 10.1037/a0025655
NB. Percentages for men and women’s preferences were quoted incorrectly before but have now been corrected.