The Hidden Advantage of Being a Female Chess Player

The battle of the sexes is a complex and nuanced debate with seemingly no end in sight. There are studies upon studies trying to understand cognitive differences between men and women. Is it nature or nurture? When it comes to differences in cognitive ability people have very strong feelings and debate can quickly devolve into accusations of sexism or denial of human nature.

One of the most famous concepts to explain differential performance between men and women is “Stereotype threat.” This theory states an individual’s awareness of a negative stereotype influences their performance in a self-fulfilling cycle due to anxiety and self-consciousness. This was originally proposed for African Americans and intelligence test performance and later documented for women and math scores.

In a groundbreaking study, Tom Stafford, puts this theory to the test in his article, Female chess players outperform expectations when playing men. Chess provides an excellent testing ground for this theory. The skill required is cognitive capacity, planning, and reason, not motor skills or strength. Chess also has the advantage that players are rated using the Elo system which provides an objective measure of a player’s skill level. Finally, Staford is able to look at over 5.5 million games around the globe in a real world environment instead of the lab.

To investigate the possibility of stereotype threat, I compared women’s performance when playing against a man, and when playing against another woman, to the expected outcome from when a man plays against a man. And yet the data showed that whether playing a stronger, matched or weaker player, women performed better when playing a man than they did a woman. In other words, the data revealed exactly the opposite pattern of performance as predicted by the concept of stereotype threat.

So what is the explanation for this “reverse stereotype threat?” Perhaps in domains where women are skilled and self-confident, anticipating a stereotype-related challenge actually sharpens their focus to buckle down. Or, says Stafford, maybe it’s an issue of male under-performance, whether “male underestimation of female opponents, misplaced chivalry, or ‘choking’ due the ego-threat of being beaten by a women.”

This is one of the first papers to examine stereotype threat using big data in the real world environment.  Importantly, it demonstrates that factors influencing performance are more nuanced and complex than often portrayed with smaller studies looking at performance differences between men and women.

Female chess players outperform expectations when playing men
Tom Stafford
Working Paper, 2017

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