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Interview with Thomas Buser, assistant professor of Behavioural and Experimental Economics

Thomas Buser

Love it or hate it, when it comes to an accurate portrayal of the human primate’s baser instincts, few films can compete with Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Based on the real life story of Jordan Belfort, stock broker-cum-alpha male, the film shockingly depicts a world of moral abandon built on power, sex and money – lots and lots of money. In one of the film’s most iconic moments, Belfort, hung over after a night of wild debauchery (but immaculately dressed nonetheless), introduces himself to the camera: ‘My name is Jordan Belfort. I'm a former member of the middle class raised by two accountants… The year I turned 26, as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.’ Amen!

To the shrewd observer willing to ignore the din of moral outrage and middle class denunciation of what Belfort represents – arrogance, ruthlessness and an atavistic compulsion to be ‘numero uno’ – the protagonist provides a number of key insights into human nature. First, that the pursuit of power and status has always formed the backdrop to human progress; second, that most people love to be ‘king of the castle’; and third, that the majority of those who thrive on the competition that accompanies the race to the top seem to be male. Which bring us to an important question: why do men appear to be overrepresented in competitive career environments?

Enter Thomas Buser, assistant professor of Behavioural and Experimental Economics at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Business and Economics. Besides exploring competitiveness among individuals, Buser – who recently received a prestigious Veni grant – also uses behavioural economics as a way to throw light on gender differences in career choices, and to find out whether differences in competitiveness between the sexes might explain why certain professions are so male-dominated, and others not. In this month’s UvA in the Spotlight, we talk to Buser about his research, his forthcoming Veni project and the social relevance of understanding competiveness among the sexes.

Are men more competitive than women?

According to a large body of research, women are indeed less willing to compete than men. Although this sounds like a sweeping statement, it should be noted that the original study which first identified this phenomenon has been replicated many times with different variations, almost all of which have yielded the same results. However, the verdict is still out as to the exact cause of this difference in men and women. Depending on the discipline, a number of explanations can be given, ranging from the structure of and underlying power relations within a society to more biological determinants such as the role of genetics. A strand of research to which I have contributed myself tries to separate nature and nurture. Research on nurture studies the effects of upbringing, education and the cultural make-up of a society (for example patriarchal vs matrilineal), while research on nurture focuses on factors such as genetics and hormones. My assessment of this literature is that the most plausible explanation lies somewhere in between the two extremes.  

You recently performed research on the role of competitiveness and career choices among teenagers. Could you please tell us more?

This research project came about as a result of lab-based experimental studies that have been done on competitiveness. In recent decades, economists – mirroring the approach of psychologists – started to become increasingly interested in lab experiments as a way of observing human behavioural choices. Several of these experiments, whereby researchers formulate a range of tasks and games for participants and then pay them according to their choices, led to the discovery that a majority of men enjoy competing, even when the chances of success are slim, while a majority of women choose not to compete, even if the chances of winning are good. For example, in one such test, participants received 1 euro for every correct answer, but they were also given the option of competing with three other participants in a winner takes all contest for a higher reward. Even though there was little performance difference between men and women, between 70 and 80 per cent of men still decided to take up the challenge while only 30 to 40 per cent  of women did so. 

Many researchers were excited about this result because it could be a partial explanation for why women choose different careers than men. This would explain, for example, why certain professions such as investment banking are so male-dominated. I wanted to test the accuracy of this extrapolation and find out if competitiveness really plays a role in a person’s career choices. Basic economic theory states that people opt for the best paying jobs, but obviously this isn’t the case – many people choose a career for a host of practical and personal reasons, a lot of them unrelated to money. With this in mind, we did an experiment with 400 Dutch high school students. In the third year of high school, they have to choose one of four academic tracks for the final three years. These tracks – science and math, biology and health, social science and economics, and culture and language – strongly predict (and limit) what degree programme a student will later take at university. Math and science, as the most prestigious track, provides access to all programmes, while the least prestigious, literature and culture, doesn’t. What our research revealed was that in pupils with the same grades, the more competitive types were much more likely to choose the most prestigious track. Also, despite having lower grades than their female counterparts, a lot more boys chose to do the most technical and prestigious track, mirroring the low number of women in science and technology. Our most important finding is that the gender difference in competitiveness can explain a significant part of the gender difference in the choice of academic career. That is, boys pick the more demanding and rewarding track more often partially because they are more competitive.

Why is it important to know that men, as the more competitive of the sexes, tend to choose competitive careers?

As far as recruitment processes go, I think it’s important for employers to know that women tend to avoid careers that are perceived as competitive. Although employers have made a concerted effort in recent years to increase the size of their female workforce, women continue to be grossly underrepresented in certain sectors. This despite many of them being equally, if not more, qualified than their male counterparts. Many employers have stringent selection processes whereby candidates are expected to compete against one another for a position that actually requires an altogether different skill set, such as the willingness to cooperate with others, creative flair and emotional intelligence. Similarly, in many companies employees are in constant competition with one another for bonuses or promotions which also might deter competent candidates who are averse to competition. Companies, however, continue to subscribe to orthodox economic theory which states that competitive selection and reward processes are beneficial, when in fact the very same processes might be deterring the most qualified employees, many of them female, from even applying.

You recently received a Veni grant for a forthcoming research project. Could you please tell us more?

My Veni grant will be used for five separate, but interconnected, projects that seek to explain gender differences in competitiveness and career choices with the aid of behavioural economics. Important questions include: does competitiveness explain why men and women choose certain careers over others? Why are some people more competitive? Does competition stress people out? Are those who get stressed out by competition less competitive, and can that explain the gender difference?

One of the projects will also focus on the way men and women respond to feedback. In behavioural economics, some recent research has been done on the process in which people update their beliefs when confronted with a new piece of information on their own abilities. One of these projects, which included an experiment with test subjects who take an intelligence test and then receive positive or negative feedback, has shown that men and women might deal with feedback in different ways. In particular, men are more overconfident to begin with and update their beliefs more strongly in response to feedback. Psychologists who’ve  worked on this subject more extensively, suggest that when feedback is bad, men blame their shortcomings on circumstances beyond their control (e.g., I was tired, which is why I failed the test) while women tend to see bad outcomes as a reflection of their own abilities. Could it be that men’s competitive natures are a direct result of their overconfidence and unconscious unwillingness to admit their own failings?