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Gender and Cultural Differences in Cooperation and Competition

3 February, 2016 - 10:48

You might be wondering whether men or women are more cooperative. Because women are on average more concerned about maintaining positive relationships with others, whereas men are on average more self-concerned, it might be expected that women might be more likely to cooperate than men. And some research has supported this idea. For instance, in terms of whether or not people accepted an initial offer that was made to them or demanded more, Babcock, Gelfand, Small, and Stayn (2006) found that about half of the men they sampled negotiated a salary when they took their first job offer, whereas only about one-eighth of the women reported doing so. Not surprisingly, women received substantially lower average annual starting salaries than did the men, a fact that is likely to contribute to the wage gap between men and women. And Small, Gelfand, Babcock, and Gettman (2007) found that, overall, women were less likely than men to try to bargain for personal gain in an experimental task. Small and colleagues concluded that women felt that asking for things for themselves was socially inappropriate, perhaps because they perceive that they have less social power than do men.

But although some studies have found that there are gender differences, an interactionist approach to the situation is even more informative. It turns out that women compete less than men in some situations, but they compete about as much as men do in other situations. For example, Bowles, Babcock, and McGinn (2005) showed that the roles that are activated at the negotiation table (i.e., whether one is negotiating for oneself or on behalf of others) are important triggers for gender differences. Women negotiated as well as men when they were negotiating for others, but they negotiated less strongly than men did for themselves. And Kray, Galinsky, and Thompson (2002) showed that gender differences in negotiation behavior are strongly affected by cognitive constructs that are accessible during negotiation. In general, gender differences in negotiation seem to occur in situations in which other-concern is highly accessible but are reduced or eliminated in situations in which other-concern is less accessible (Gelfand, Major, Raver, Nishii, & O’Brien, 2006). A recent meta-analysis of 272 research studies (Baillet, Li, Macfarlan, & van Vugt, 2011) found that overall, men and women cooperated equally. But men cooperated more with other men than women cooperated with other women. In mixed-sex interactions, women were more cooperative than men.

And there are also cultural differences in cooperation, in a direction that would be expected. For instance, Gelfand et al. (2002) found that Japanese students—who are more interdependent and thus generally more other-concerned—were more likely to cooperate and achieved higher outcomes in a negotiation task than did students from the United States (who are more individualistic and self-oriented; Chen, Mannix, & Okumura, 2003).

Key Takeaways

  • The behavior of individuals in conflict situations is frequently studied using laboratory games such as the prisoner’s dilemma game. Other types of laboratory games include resource dilemma games and the trucking game.
  • Taken together, these games suggest that the most beneficial approach in social dilemmas is to maintain a balance between self-concern and other-concern.
  • Individual differences in cooperation and competition, such as those proposed by the dual-concern model, show that individuals will relate to social dilemmas depending on their underlying personal orientations.
  • Although women do compete less than men in some situations, they compete about as much as men do in other situations. There are cultural differences in cooperation.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider a time when you were in a type of social dilemma, perhaps with friends or family. How did your self-concern and other-concern lead you to resolve the dilemma?
  2. Review and critique the laboratory games that have been used to assess responses in social dilemmas. What are their strengths and the limitations?


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