Gender and Chess

We’ve discussed stereotype effects before (For example, here). There’s a lot of data showing that if you activate a stereotype about a particular group during badly on a task, members of that group will do badly on the task (but not if you don’t). Women, for example, do less well on maths tests if reminded of their gender in some way (even just being asked if they live in single sex accommodation).

Now there’s an important new study on gender stereotypes and chess.

In this paper it is argued that gender stereotypes are mainly responsible for the underperformance of women in chess. Forty-two male-female pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via the Internet. When players were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition), women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents…

…gender stereotypes can have a greatly debilitating effect on female players leading to a 50% performance decline when playing against males. Interestingly, this disadvantage is completely removed when players are led to believe that they are playing against a woman. This may, in part, occur because women choose a more defensive style when playing with men.

Pretty impressive results, and very good to know about. (Thanks, Vishal!)

27 thoughts on “Gender and Chess

  1. I was the only girl on my high school chess team and normally played at second board (#2 of the five players). The one time I played first board, I was up against a guy I knew from the previous summer; we’d both been in college math classes together. Instead of being friendly as I expected, he and his buddy spent most of the match making smirking comments about my gender and presumed inferiority. I got pretty rattled, and also thought he was probably a better player than I was, so I stopped even trying to play responsibly and started going for cheap tricks. To my delight, he was so caught up in his rude banter with his buddy that he didn’t notice what I was doing, and I abruptly checkmated him. Our coach, arriving late, scolded me for my very unsportsmanlike gloating, but, hey.

  2. I’d love to know what a cheap chess trick is…

    Interesting fact again, Jender.

    A loosely related anecdote: my friend who is a big internet poker player discovered that on the sites where you can choose an avatar, if he plays as a woman, the other players play far more aggressively. If he plays a black man, on the other hand, they play more timidly. It’s easier – he says – if the others are more timid.

  3. Did this study only look at female chess performance, or did it also examine if men play differently based upon the perceived gender of their opponents? That would be interesting to know, particularly in the context of interpreting the results.

  4. Monkey – I mean moving a piece into a weaker position from which it can attack if the opponent doesn’t defend, and where the opponent’s defense leaves him or her just as strong as before. Basically, risky gambles that would end up favoring the opponent if he or she is paying attention.

  5. This is such a great example. We should do a collation of posts on whether women can reason as well as men.

    lga, the comments about gender and inferiority are really shocking. Might be worth doing a poll on this.

  6. I remember playing the best female player in my age range in my country and she completely fell apart against what was a fairly standard (although quite agressive) sort of opening – I was really surprised…
    In light of this, maybe by chance I’d chosen the right way to play psychologically.

  7. ‘matched for ability’?
    If this means what I think it means, it says it all…

    Why can’t feminists accept that if there are things in/at which women are better, there are other things in/at which men are better?
    Fact is, men are better at chess. Women know this. So when they are up against a man, they have a little fear which affects their play.
    This is a normal thing, there’s nothing wrong with it. The same would happen to anyone who’d think his/her opponent is better then him/her. It’s not some kind of conditioning conspiracy from male chess players or from society in general.

  8. #4 Fractal
    It’s a feminist dominated world. Who gives a flying f*ck about men nowadays?!

  9. Deansdale, it turns out that a very similar thing happens when white guys play black guys in sports (well, some sports). The general and underlying account we’ve been interested in here would say that the fear induced by the superior reputation of black guys makes the white guys play less well. That’s very different from the explanation you are giving.

    And as for who care about men nowadays? We try to acknowledge the injustices men experience (see our last Sotomayor post before this), but there remain many, many important ways in which women’s opportunities are far fewer/less than men’s.

  10. I’m so happy to see this post! Thank you.

    I recently began playing chess again as an adult; my father taught me when I was a girl and I used to play with him. When I learned about the gender discrepancy in chess, I did some web research on the subject. The only academic study I’d seen before this was from 2006:

    “We conclude that the greater number of men at the highest levels in chess can be explained by the greater number of boys who enter chess at the lowest levels.”

    I wonder what you all think about the relationship of the two studies.

    Also, do you imagine that having woman-only tournaments or chess classes/clubs is helpful or harmful to women chess players? Perhaps both? (If they play as well as they can reasonably play against another woman, then that helps improve their playing ability. However, it doesn’t help them “practice” playing against men, psychologically.)

  11. Deansdale, you ignore an important finding of the study: when the female players did not know their opponents were male, they played just as well as the male players. The study indicates that it’s simply the fact of knowing the gender of the opponent that leads to inferior female performance, rather than any intrinsic lack of ability, as you claim. The results of the study would suggest that if all players were denied knowledge of their opponent’s gender during matches, the world would have as many great female chess players as great male chess players.

  12. “We conclude that the greater number of men at the highest levels in chess can be explained by the greater number of boys who enter chess at the lowest levels.”

    Could the pre-existing gender stereotype (boys are better at chess than girls) be causing parents to think twice about encouraging their daughters to pursue chess? This would lead to more young boys rather than young girls learning and pursuing chess.

    I think this study mistakes an earlier consequence of the real explanation for the actual explanation.

    Is there a philosophical term for this sort of error, btw?

  13. jj, thanx :]
    What I said (or I thought I said) was something similar to what you’re saying. The question is that is the difference in reputation only, or is it ability. I think in both male vs female chess and white vs black (for example) basketball the difference is real. Reputations tend to be based on something.
    The most important thing I wanted to say is that it does not matter that men actually ARE better at chess. The genders are different, but the difference does not make any gender better than the other. So accepting and admitting that men are better at sthg does not have any ‘real’ meaning, and certainly nothing derogatory for women.
    The problem is that feminists never want to admit that men could be better at anything. It’s a kind of female superiority complex. If feminists didn’t have this problem, we wouldn’t have this conversation because in reality it is meaningless.
    Ofcourse men are better chess players. So what? It’s a non-issue for everybody except feminists.
    I expect that in a few years we will arrive at a point where articles will be saying that that men are better weightlifters is only because of gender discrimination and social conditioning.

    Jeutria, to be honest, I don’t really care what this study say, because it is not exact in any way. It’s full of phrases like ‘approximately’, which makes it rather meaningless.
    What I know for sure is that the world’s best male chess player would beat the world’s best female any day of the week. They are not even in the same league.
    And this is true for almost any sports; an average university male team in most sports would beat the world champion female team.
    Tough luck, girls. Men are stronger, faster, etc.
    OTOH, we live shorter, our health is way worse and so on.

  14. Jeutria: This is a quote from the paper:

    “External factors like the relative lack of female role models among the world’s top players and the prospect of playing a game dominated by boys may be discouraging to girls (or their parents), either directly reducing their likelihood of learning how to play in the first place or indirectly reducing their initial performance in competitive play via test anxiety or stereotype threat (Steele, 1997). ”

    They did mention it, but just not in the abstract. Indeed they also cite supporting research on just that cause! Don’t just read the abstract if you’re going to comment criticize a paper (which brings me to the next topic…).

    Deansdale: Those phrases don’t make it meaningless. I am not going to read the study to you but you are welcome to read the study yourself and see precisely what the term means. If you can’t access the paper I’ll copy and paste the section they talk about it (just ask).

    Men are more easily able to gain muscle mass due in part to testosterone level differences from women, this is true. General intellectual activities are not the same as weight lifting though, and weight lifting is also not the same as general sports that involve more than just moving weight vertically. Men are also faster at rotating geometric objects mentally, although I don’t think the cause of this has been agreed upon (it certainly isn’t due to testosterone, since higher testosterone causes lower intelligence). Feminists don’t dispute these differences though.

    In this study the effects of gender stereotypes on performance in intellectual activities were investigated and unsurprisingly women had a 50% performance decrease when the stereotype was activated. As a reaction, you came in here complaining about how feminists are always this or that and they need to be quiet. Nobody here even implied that women are necessarily better chess players than men at all, despite the accusations. It seems that most of what you’re saying is based off some strange stereotype of “feminists” you’ve brought with you, not what the feminists here are actually like at all.

    You might wonder why feminists aren’t so keen on agreeing that men and women are different, or that men are better at this or that thing, when they may be. It’s not because feminists have just made the mistake of thinking that there is no physical difference between men and women. Instead maybe you should think about it in terms of communication. If feminists readily agree that men and women are different, people will mistakenly think that whatever is being discussed is due to genetics and not something else and then they stop listening. That’s just what seems to happen the majority of the time, and unless that’s the goal, it does not make sense to keep going through the old “but men and women are different” “okay sure but in this case it’s because…” “just accept that they are different!!” song and dance.

  15. Interesting comments, TaylorMurphy. You might be interested in a post we did on recent experiments that suggest the difference in visual rotation is largely or wholly due to the environment and is easily changed. It’s here.

    I’m not sure what leads people like deansdale to come on to assert the general superiority of men intellectually. It’s ironic that such posts usually are among the least intellectually sophisticated ones we get. Part of their motivation does seem to have to do with stereotypes of what all feminists think or say.

  16. Ofcourse muscle gain is not like mental activities. And I never said that men are better chess players ‘because’ they can lift more weights.
    The point was that there are differences. One of which is the different distribution of intellectual capabilities. There are more men at both ends of the IQ graph. That means there are more geniuses and more idiots amongst men. Which in turn means that we have more exceptional male chess players then women.
    This is a fact.
    The point of the study mentioned is that women facing a supposedly better player have a decrease in their abilities. But it’s logical that it is because men usually ARE better players. So this whole issue is NOT a men-women social/feminist/gender stereotypes issue but a simple law of competing: you fear those who you think are better players then yourself.

  17. “you came in here complaining about how feminists are always this or that and they need to be quiet.”
    That’s something new. I never said anything like this.

    “Nobody here even implied that women are necessarily better chess players than men at all, despite the accusations.”
    Never said this either. Who are you arguing with?
    What I said was that feminists cannot accept that men are better chess players. It’s not the same thing.

    “I’m not sure what leads people like deansdale to come on to assert the general superiority of men intellectually.”
    Nice condecension but I didn’t say this either.
    As I said, the distributions are different, but the averages are the same. This is a well-known scientific fact. Larry Summers got nailed to the cross for mentioning this but it’s still true nonetheless.

    “It’s ironic that such posts usually are among the least intellectually sophisticated ones we get.”
    It’s quite possible that my posts are not ‘sophisticated’ since english is not my native language. Yet I consider myself and my posts reasonable enough. Maybe it’s not me who has stereotypes about feminists, maybe you have stereotypes about men :)

    The problem is, the study in question would sound absolutely rediculous with any other sport. It’s dodgy because it’s about chess, and we all know that it’s not politically correct to mention the different distribution of intelligence (see Larry Summers). If you take out the political correctness from the study, what’s left is that supposedly worse players get frightened of supposedly better players. As I tried to say it numerous times, it’s only a feminist issue because we sweep aside scientific facts because of PCness.

    The only question is what side feminists take on the distribution issue. They can use PC to their advantage and silence all who oppose, or they can admit the truth.

    It kinda’ reminds me of the ‘battle of the sexes’ tennis match. Feminists had a big celebration and said ‘see now? women are just as good at tennis as men’ after Billie Jean King beat a man who was 55 years old – 25 years older then her.
    That Nadal or Federer would beat Safina or the Williams sisters without losing a single point seems to elude some feminists.

    Oh, and one more thing, just to make sure: the difference in distribution is a genetic thing.

  18. Deansdale: you write:

    The point was that there are differences. One of which is the different distribution of intellectual capabilities. There are more men at both ends of the IQ graph. That means there are more geniuses and more idiots amongst men. Which in turn means that we have more exceptional male chess players then women.

    What we have recently discovered is that these supposed facts do not hold true. They seem never to have held true in more egalitarian sociesties, such as Scandanavia, and as the stigma is removed from women doing maths, they are changing in the states. What we are learning is that cultural forces can seriously affect test scores.

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  20. I don’t know about this. I played chess about 10 consecutive times with a girl online who crushed me about 10 consecutive times before I finally beat her on the 11th try.

  21. Taylor Murphy, you make the claim that higher testosterone is linked to lower intelligence. Could you please provide a pointer to that information. In 2011 a study was conducted that drew different conclusions–namely that higher testosterone is linked to higher intelligence:

    Are you referencing the 2007 study?

    There is also this study from 1998: IQ tended to increase with T in men, except at very high T levels. It was concluded that (i) T may be associated with IQ, even in samples with no sex-related IQ difference; (ii) too low or too high T may be disadvantageous for fluid intelligence in women; (iii) T may be advantageous for this kind of IQ in men, except very high T levels.

    Both of the studies I reference seem to support that High Testosterone is correlated with high intelligence. EXCEPT possibly in cases where the level is abnormally high–key word being abnormal.

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