In our culture, competitiveness is usually associated with youth. Think of sporting contests, music competitions (both of the classical virtuoso and pop diva varieties), or the pressure-packed process of applying to prestigious universities.
It now appears watching eager young performers in action may have skewed our view of the competitive urge. Newly published research suggests the instinct to bet on the superiority of one’s skills peaks around age 50.
A research team led by University of Oregon psychologist Ulrich Mayr reports this pattern holds true for both men and women, although the willingness of women to compete is consistently lower than that of men throughout the age span.
Their study, described in the journal Psychology and Aging, was conducted at a shopping mall in Eugene, Oregon. Passersby were recruited to participate by the promise of earning anywhere from $2 to $15, “depending on their decisions and performance.” In the end, 543 people between the ages of 25 and 75 took part.
After a couple of practice rounds, each was instructed to perform “a simple mental arithmetic task.” They could either receive a fixed-rate payment of 25 cents per correct item, or opt for a competitive payment plan. If they chose the latter, they would be paid 50 cents per correct item, but only if they outscored a randomly chosen earlier participant.
So who was most willing to take a chance and double their money? The answer, by a wide margin, was men between the ages of 45 and 54. Both younger and older men were less willing to take the bet, with the percentage dropping off dramatically for those 65 and older.
This same pattern was found in women, although they were less eager than men to engage in competitive behavior at each stage of life. This confirms previous research that found a large gender gap regarding the willingness to compete — even in a task where women performed just as well as men.
“It seems to reflect a surprisingly stubborn bias that appears unaffected by a lifetime of experience with one’s actual competence,” the researchers write.
But the bigger surprise was that, for both genders, those in mid-life were the most willing to compete. While the reasons behind this are complex and necessarily speculative, the researchers note that the desire for social dominance — that is, to be viewed as an important member of your organization, your profession, your community — also tends to be most intense in middle age.
“Successful engaging in competitions is critical for establishing social dominance,” they note, “and therefore it is plausible to assume that with such an increased interest in social dominance comes an increased taste for competition.”
So if you are warily watching that eager young office assistant, convinced he is eyeing your job, you may have your eye on the wrong guy. Better, perhaps, to keep tabs on that middle-aged man down the hall.