Are Boys More Competitive Than Girls Because They Play in Groups?

What Women Really Think
May 17 2013 12:53 PM

Are Boys More Competitive Than Girls Because They Play in Groups?

152741883
Boys building the competitive spirit

Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

When I was doing research for a piece about the uber-successful Emanuel Brothers and what their parents did to encourage them to be so competitive, I ended up talking to Ashley Merryman, the co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. According to Merryman and her co-author Po Bronson, part of what might have made the Emanuel brothers so ambitious from childhood is that they were all boys, and that there were three of them. Girls tend to play in pairs, while boys arrange themselves in groups, and group play breeds the competitive spirit. So what’s behind this, and why does playing in groups make boys more aggressive?

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Harvard evolutionary biologist Joyce Benenson speculates that the instinct for men to align themselves in groups goes way back in human history. Men hunted in groups, and so they had to learn to get along quickly in a bunch, and this quality was supposedly bred into men through natural selection (maybe you got picked off by a lion if you didn’t bond with the group). Whether or not you buy this, Merryman and Bronson cite a 2004 study from Benenson that shows male infants as young as six months prefer photographs of groups to photographs of pairs or individuals. Girl babies show no preference.

Advertisement

In Benenson’s studies of older children, the differences are starker, Merryman explained to me over the phone. “In observed lab studies of six- to eight-year-old boys, they spent 70 to 80 percent of their time playing in groups,” while girls spend less than 20 percent of their time in groups. Boys are so desperate to arrange themselves in groups that “when [researchers] put a pair of boys in a room and forced them to talk to each other, they ended up talking about what it would be like to have a group of boys there.” By contrast, “Girls in a group will look at each other and try to find a single friend.” This behavior extends all the way up to the boardroom.

So why does it matter? Because men’s experience in groups may be why they not only compete more as adults, but why they’re also less concerned about the outcome of the competition, Merryman and Bronson argue in Top Dog:

“Groups are rarely a collection of true equals. It’s expected that, within a group, people will have different experiences, abilities, resources. That’s often the group’s greatest strength. Therefore, as long as everyone has signed on to the group’s larger purpose, its members don’t need to conform in other ways...Occasional challenges to group hierarchy can be welcomed, because they force everyone to improve over time.”

Furthermore, the natural communication style of groups is assertiveness—you need to pipe up to be heard over the din of several. Not so with dyads. The natural communication style of pairs is “a mutual exchange of feelings,” Merryman and Bronson say. “In a conversation between two people, even a mild difference of opinion can be perceived as a threat.” Because women are socialized to have this self-deprecating style of exchange from their first interactions, it’s no wonder they have trouble making themselves heard in the office.

Essentialist takes on how children behave are tricky, and it’s possible that kids follow a more fluid set of rules than the researchers suggest. Still, after reading Top Dog, I want to stick my daughter in soccer as soon as she can stand upright, so that she’ll get used to speaking up in a group. If she’s not athletically inclined, it will be debate team all the way.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?