The XX Factor

Are Boys More Competitive Than Girls Because They Play in Groups?

Boys building the competitive spirit

Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

When I was doing research for a piece about the uber-successful Emanuel Brothers and what their parents did to encourage them to be so competitive, I ended up talking to Ashley Merryman, the co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. According to Merryman and her co-author Po Bronson, part of what might have made the Emanuel brothers so ambitious from childhood is that they were all boys, and that there were three of them. Girls tend to play in pairs, while boys arrange themselves in groups, and group play breeds the competitive spirit. So what’s behind this, and why does playing in groups make boys more aggressive?

Harvard evolutionary biologist Joyce Benenson speculates that the instinct for men to align themselves in groups goes way back in human history. Men hunted in groups, and so they had to learn to get along quickly in a bunch, and this quality was supposedly bred into men through natural selection (maybe you got picked off by a lion if you didn’t bond with the group). Whether or not you buy this, Merryman and Bronson cite a 2004 study from Benenson that shows male infants as young as six months prefer photographs of groups to photographs of pairs or individuals. Girl babies show no preference.

In Benenson’s studies of older children, the differences are starker, Merryman explained to me over the phone. “In observed lab studies of six- to eight-year-old boys, they spent 70 to 80 percent of their time playing in groups,” while girls spend less than 20 percent of their time in groups. Boys are so desperate to arrange themselves in groups that “when [researchers] put a pair of boys in a room and forced them to talk to each other, they ended up talking about what it would be like to have a group of boys there.” By contrast, “Girls in a group will look at each other and try to find a single friend.” This behavior extends all the way up to the boardroom.

So why does it matter? Because men’s experience in groups may be why they not only compete more as adults, but why they’re also less concerned about the outcome of the competition, Merryman and Bronson argue in Top Dog:

“Groups are rarely a collection of true equals. It’s expected that, within a group, people will have different experiences, abilities, resources. That’s often the group’s greatest strength. Therefore, as long as everyone has signed on to the group’s larger purpose, its members don’t need to conform in other ways…Occasional challenges to group hierarchy can be welcomed, because they force everyone to improve over time.”

Furthermore, the natural communication style of groups is assertiveness—you need to pipe up to be heard over the din of several. Not so with dyads. The natural communication style of pairs is “a mutual exchange of feelings,” Merryman and Bronson say. “In a conversation between two people, even a mild difference of opinion can be perceived as a threat.” Because women are socialized to have this self-deprecating style of exchange from their first interactions, it’s no wonder they have trouble making themselves heard in the office.

Essentialist takes on how children behave are tricky, and it’s possible that kids follow a more fluid set of rules than the researchers suggest. Still, after reading Top Dog, I want to stick my daughter in soccer as soon as she can stand upright, so that she’ll get used to speaking up in a group. If she’s not athletically inclined, it will be debate team all the way.