The competitive urge

Apparently humans are more competitive when there are fewer of us competing for the prize:

Students taking standardized tests in more crowded venues got lower scores. Students asked to complete a short general-knowledge test as fast as possible to win a prize if they were in the fastest 20 percent completed it faster if they were told that they were competing against 10 people rather than 100.

Intuitively, I guess that we feel more likely to win if we have to beat fewer people. With a smaller group to compete against, the probability of having a low ability group is greater than with a larger sample where ability is likely to be closer to the population distribution. I was going to class this as behavioural economics, but I suppose it just shows our intuitions to be more rational than I expected!

ht: Marginal Revolution

14 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Do you think that people might enjoy competing with more people – as they can keep tabs on whose arse they could potentially kick 😉

    One thing I keep in mind is that it is easier to keep an eye on 10 people than 100 – as a result, people may think that they are more effectively able to play the game with fewer people.

  2. Steve Withers
    Steve Withers says:

    There used be games of hundreds per side football….and they quickly faded out.

    Only one ball.

    Too many people rushing around – or standing around – not really in the game at all other than by luck. Often hard for the players to even see what was going on due to all the bodies on the field.

    People are actually very efficient about their time and aren’t inclined to waste it in low-percentage situations. That isn’t really intuition. It’s staringly obvious. 🙂

  3. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Hmmm, I’m not so sure it’s obvious. I think there’s a good intuition for the other side of it, too: in a small class you might have to be the best there to be top 10%. In a big class you only have to be one of the top ten, which doesn’t seem quite such a tough challenge. So you work harder in the big class, thinking that there’s a greater chance of success.

    I think calling this result obvious demonstrates some hindsight bias, but perhaps I’m just inclined to think it’s not obvious because it wasn’t obvious to me 😛

  4. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    I need to think this through more, but I’m interested how you guys thing excludability fits in to this?

    In Steve’s example, one person’s success can in effect exclude someone else’s, on the face of it the fewer the people there are the greater the likelihood of success and therefore the greater competitive urge.

    When it comes to something like standardised tests the intuition isn’t immediately obvious to me, as me doing well doesn’t prevent someone else in my class doing well.

    Maybe the distinction is how you define success, is it relative (i.e. compared to your class mates) or absolute (i.e. how you do on a national scale)? I think Ruaparaha’s logic suits situations where relative success is more important.

    Apologies if I’m not making sense, I need more coffee….

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