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Traits of powerful women and men. How do they differ?

Traits of powerful women and men? How do they differ?

Behavioural science has been keen to discover how social status can impact the way people act in collaborative situations. In a new series of studies, researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal at Quebec have found a gender-based difference when it comes to sharing: men of high-status are more likely to join up on a project and share the fruits of their labours with lower status men than are women.

Beyond economics, cooperative theory has a role to play in a number of disciplines, from evolutionary biology and psychology to neuroscience, mathematics and military science. And while much of the research so far pays homage to rational choice theory as the basis for decision-making in cooperative situations, many other less-rational (and less-studied) factors can affect decision-making in groups, such as kinship, sex, age and social status.

Traits of powerful women and men vary…


Being related to someone can give a person extra push to cooperate on a project and “play nice” by sharing equally the rewards of their efforts. But how do people behave when asked to share with someone of lower status —someone over whom you might have influence? It turns out that men are more likely to engage in and share with other men lower on the totem pole than women.

Researchers took three different groups of undergraduate students and had them act in simulated coordination scenarios involving computer games, some of which had fictional rewards (“points”) while in others, participants could win small amounts of money. The trick was that in some scenarios, participants were told that they were the leaders of a fictional group of same-sex participants (i.e. that they had the most influence in the group), while in others, they had the misfortune of having the least amount of influence.

The results showed that when the male students were given the lead role, they were more apt to divvy up their winnings with the other men, while the women turned out to be less good at sharing.

“High status males invested more than high status females in both high and low performing subordinates,” say the study’s authors. “The effect occurred using three different instantiations of high status (social influence, leadership, and power).”

The researchers theorize that men are more apt to see such benevolent interactions with subordinates to be good for their group’s (and thus, their own) future success, while traits of powerful women suggest they are less concerned about maintaining group cohesion and stability.

“Our hypothesis here is that high status males are using increased altruistic sharing as a way to increase the social bonding of lower status individuals to an (intuitive) group,” say the authors. As for women, the researchers say that their results speak to the need to reinforce the benefits of cooperation in group situations, even against any intuitive impulses to act otherwise.

“Promoting group identity and reducing the intense focus on one individual at a time could encourage high-ranked females to invest more heavily in their lower-ranked peers,” say the authors.

The new research is published in the journal PLOS One.


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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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