Competition among women is often dramatized in pop culture, but it turns out the thrill of besting someone (even another female) isn't always a source of motivation, according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, George Mason University and the German Institute for Economic Research. They found that females are more likely to compete when the opponent is themselves.

According to a press release from Penn, "58 percent of males chose competition (against others) ... compared to 38 percent of women, a 20-percentage-point gender gap. That disparity disappeared in the “self” version," of a game where participants decided whether to compete against themselves.

And that old belief that women love competing with each other? Doesn't seem to be true, according to the paper, which shows that only about 22 percent of women chose to compete against another woman. In comparison, women who were told their opponent had the same ability chose to compete 30 percent of the time.

The team studied 1,200 participants, half female and half male, as they answered questions for three rounds. To test against others, subjects were paid for every correct answer in the first round before being matched with another player in the second. During this phase, winners were paid double for correct responses, while losers received nothing. In the final round, players could continue with the tournament style and play against their opponent’s second-round score or get paid for every correct answer as in round one. The bolder option of competing against someone else offered more rewards with double payments, but more risk too, as they would receive nothing if they couldn’t beat their opponent’s score.

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To test against themselves, players tried to beat their first round score in level two with the option to compete against their second round score in the finals. After the game, a questionnaire measuring confidence and willingness to take risks was completed. Some subjects played the games online instead of in the lab and were told either the gender or skill level of their opponent.

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The team believes the desire not to compete comes down to confidence. “Our study and others suggest that some of the difference between men and women results from the fact that women tend to underestimate their own ability relative to their opponent,” co-author Coren Apicella of the University of Pennsylvania told Medical Daily in an email. "For men, it is the opposite—they overestimate their ability.”

As Apicella highlights, this isn’t the first study depicting these gender differences, which can either hinder or boost career growth. Recent research shows that six-year-old girls believe boys are the smarter sex.

“If women are underestimating their ability, then they are less likely to compete and, consequently, they may be less likely to improve their performance or get that recognition from winning,” she explains. ​

With the spotlight on workplace issues like the gender wage gap, employers can use this information to help all employees succeed. The team believes that developing programs and environments that reduce competition among colleagues and focuses on self improvement would be more effective and rewarding for women.

Of course, this is also a good reminder that competition can pay off. As Johanna Mollerstrom of the German Institute for Economic Research, and study co-author, believes, those who normally shy away from competition should evaluate its pros and cons.

“Women may feel that it is very risky to compete, but after all, the worst thing that can happen is that you lose, which may not be the end of the world,” she says. “On the other hand, a win in the competition may be very valuable.”

You can get a simple ego boost by asking for feedback about how you stack up against others as you're probably much better than you think. Plus, Apicella says knowing performance can be vital and help determine whether or not you should jump into the competition - whether applying for a higher position or asking to lead a project.

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