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Positive memories of individual control may encourage healthy competitiveness in women

Women are more likely to engage in competition if they recall situations where they were in control / Economists use the ‘priming’ method to close the gender gap in career and income

In comparison to women, men are more predisposed to competitiveness, which likely contributes to the differences in salaries between men and women. The economist Professor Dr Matthias Sutter from the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Cologne has shown in a recent study that a simple and practically unlimited method can contribute to closing the income and career gap between men and women. The article ‘Closing the gender gap in competitiveness through priming’ has been published in the current issue of Nature Communications.

Sutter and his colleagues Loukas Balafoutas and Helena Fornwagner from the University of Innsbruck used the method of ‘priming with power’. It involves stimulation through memories of power situations in the test persons. Psychologists define priming as the influence of a previous stimulus on a current stimulus, for example in the case of memories. As a result of the experiments, the female test persons were encouraged to feel comfortable while exercising power. As a result, they caught up with the men in their willingness to compete.
In order to influence a cognitive process in human beings this way, they must be put into a stimulus-altering ‘mood’, for example by remembering a previous positive or negative event. This can change the person’s reaction to a subsequent situation. In the case of competitive behaviour between men and women, the scientists set a positive stimulus in the area of power over fellow human beings. The test persons were asked imagine situations from their lives in which they were in either a neutral position of power, in a position where they were dominated by others, or in a position where they had control over others. Then the male and female test persons could decide whether or not to engage in a simple competition – adding numbers in a short period of time.

If the test persons were not ‘primed’ (neutral) or influenced by an experience where they had been dominated, men elected to partake in competition much more often than women did. ‘The differences between men and women disappeared when the test persons were exposed to the memory of a situation in which they had control over others’, says Sutter. ‘These memories influenced the behaviour of the female test persons so much that they opted to partake in competition just as often as their male counterparts did. Interestingly, men’s willingness to compete even decreased in this situation, thus the gender difference disappeared.’

Companies and their HR departments may benefit from such techniques in future if they want the best candidate for a job, albeit any given candidate must feel comfortable in a competitive situation.

Media Enquiries:
Professor Dr. Matthias Sutter
+43 660 710 8525

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