Thomas Buser is no stranger to competition himself. In September, the researcher and lecturer at the Amsterdam School of Economics of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) won the prestigious Starting Grant of the European Research Council (ERC). Buser will use the grant of 1,3 million euros to recruit new PhD students and to continue his experimental research into the relationship between different personality traits, including the willingness to compete, and the choice of study or career development.
Winning the grant was preceded by presentations and discussions, and the associated knock-out competition. ‘I wouldn’t have received this grant if I weren’t willing to compete’, says Buser. On a scale of one to ten, Buser would give himself about an eight. ‘I’m willing to compete, but I don’t need to win. Incidentally, the world of science is competitive throughout, but that is not why I joined it. I might even have been happier in an environment with less competition.’
In many fields, building a career goes hand in hand with fierce competition.
Willingness to compete
His main research interest is finding out whether differences in personality can explain differences of career choices and labour market outcomes between individuals. He makes frequent use of experiments to study human behaviour and then links the experimental data to survey and administrative data on career outcomes.
‘In many fields, building a career goes hand in hand with fierce competition,’ says Buser. ‘Professional environments where competition is at its strongest tend to be dominated by men. This has encouraged researchers in experimental economics to investigate whether men and women, for example, have a fundamentally different willingness to enter the competition.’ The main conclusion of this research is that men are more competitive than women.
Buser has followed up on this research by linking experimental competition choices to real-life career outcomes. In his past and current research in collaboration with Muriel Niederle of Stanford University and Hessel Oosterbeek (UvA) he finds that people who display a more competitive attitude in experiments generally have higher positions, typically earn more money and more often choose for technical education. A willingness to compete also has a strong correlation with the choice of study, career path and salary, as well as the difference between men and women.
‘My research is not primarily about gender’, says Buser, ‘but about finding out if people who are more competitive take other decisions. On top of economics preferences like risk aversion and psychological traits such as self-confidence or conscientiousness, the degree of competitiveness is an individual trait that might matter for economically important life choices. It turns out that for career decisions, willingness to compete is a better predictor than most other characteristics.’
Buser also conducts experiments at the CREED research centre of the Amsterdam School of Economics. These are usually set up in a playful manner. In one of the studies, conducted together with Tinbergen PhD Huaiping Yuan, men and women are asked to solve a series of sums at a quick rate and are paid real money for their performance. In each round, they play against a different, unknown person who has been selected at random. In each round of play, players choose between two ways to play the game. One is the non-competitive option, in which each correct answer scores a point. The other is the competitive option, in which each correct answer scores two points, provided that the player wins from his or her opponent in that round. The player who loses gets no points. Each point stands for a certain amount of money.
Women, on average, choose the non-competitive option more often than men do. ‘This behaviour had already been observed in many earlier studies’, says Buser. ‘What was new in our study was that after choosing to compete and losing, women more often than men opted for the safer non-competitive option in the next round. Moreover, we observe the same pattern in-field data from the Dutch Math Olympiad. Girls who do not make the second round are less likely to try again the year after but there is no effect on boys.’
‘Competition may be good for the individual, but that does not mean that it’s better for society as a whole when everybody is more competitive.'
Buser stresses that despite the positive correlation between competitiveness and economic success, a performance-oriented environment may not always positive. ‘Competition may be good for the individual, but that does not mean that it’s better for society as a whole when everybody is more competitive. Competition may be positive in sports, but not everywhere and at any price. For example, we don’t know if people who are more competitive are not also less cooperative or more likely to break the rules. This is something I want to focus on in future research.’
Buser also does not believe that somehow encouraging women to be more competitive is the best route for tackling gender differences in the labour market. He believes it would be better to follow the opposite route. ‘A company striving for more diversity could consider reducing the level of competition in order to attract other groups and give them a chance. If a job is paid mainly on the basis of out-performing your co-workers, it is certain that more competitive people will apply.’
According to Buser, the same goes for a work environment in which most colleagues behave in an overly competitive manner. ‘It is not clear, however, that there is always a positive correlation between competitiveness and productivity. Many jobs require teamwork and willingness to help each other. Companies and universities could, therefore, change their environment in order to attract a more diverse set of individuals.’
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