The Situationist

The Gendered Situation of Chess

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 10, 2009

Woman Chess PlayerFrom ChessBase News:  “Normally knowing your enemy is an advantage. Not so in chess games between the sexes. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 38, Issue 2 (March/April 2008) (pdf here), Anne Maass, Claudio D’Ettole, Mara Cadinu, Dr Anne Maass (et al.) pitted male and female players against each other via the Internet. Women showed a 50% performance decline when they were aware that they were playing a male opponent.”  Here’s the article’s abstract.

* * *

Women are surprisingly underrepresented in the chess world, representing less that 5% of registered tournament players worldwide and only 1% of the world’s grandmasters. 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. In addition, our findings suggest that women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a weaker promotion focus, which are predictive of poorer chess performance.

* * *

Here’s the article’s conclusion.

* * *

A number of novel findings emerge from the present study that complement cognitively-oriented research on chess. Most importantly, 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.

A second and more general message of our study is that self-confidence and a win-oriented promotion motivation contribute positively to chess performance. Since women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a more cautious regulatory focus than males, possibly as a consequence of widely held gender stereotypes, this may at least in part explain their worldwide underrepresentation and underperformance in chess.

Thus, women seem disadvantaged not because they are lacking cognitive or spatial abilities, but because they approach chess competitions with lesser confidence and with a more cautious attitude than their male opponents. Hence, a motivational perspective may be better suited to understand (and prevent) the underperformance of women in the ‘ultimate intellectual sport.’

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You can dowload the entire article here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes,” The Situation of Gender and Science,Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

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5 Responses to “The Gendered Situation of Chess”

  1. Zack said

    Pretty cool post. I just came by your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your posts.

    Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon!

  2. Robert said

    This study is informative, and shows stereotypes play a role in female chess performance.

    However, the paper does not establish what is claimed in the abstract: that “…gender stereotypes are mainly responsible for the underperformance of women in chess.”

    I’ll walk you through why it doesn’t, and hopefully my example will clear up some misinterpretations of stereotype threat discussed elsewhere by Paul Sackett.

    We have to take a look at the experimental design, and the issues are a little delicate, but my critique of the Maass claim will take the form of a reductio ad absurdum.

    Suppose that instead of comparing women and men at chess, Anne Maass decides her next project will be to compare men and computers.

    Computers can be built to outperform even the top men, but suppose Maass thinks this is just due to social psychology, in that a man facing a computer gets nervous from the fact that his opponent has orders of magnitude more processing power, and consequently the man often melts under pressure, so that maybe if Gary Kasparov thought he was playing Jack Taylor instead of IBM’s Deep Blue then he would have been victorious.

    Now, suppose for the sake of argument that IBM has built a whole army of chess computers, which are generally better than men, but have a certain amount of variation in their abilities. Maass thus begins her new experiment comparing men and computers, similar in design to her current experiment comparing women and men.

    Step 1: Maass matches each man in her sample with a computer of equal chess ability.

    Step 2: Maass divides the man/computer pairs into two groups. There is a control group where men think they’re playing against other men and an experimental group where men are truthfully told that they’re playing against computers.

    In the control group where men think they’re playing men, the matching by ability means we should expect men to do about as well as their inanimate opponents. So suppose this happens.

    In the experimental group where men are told they’re playing computers, it might be entirely reasonable to expect men to get nervous and perform worse than their silicon doppelgangers. So again, suppose this is what happens.

    But now suppose Masse publishes that stereotypes are “…mainly responsible for the underperformance” of men against computers. This conclusion cannot follow from the (hypothetical, albeit expected) results, because the computers were designed by IBM to be much better (on average) than men. Even with a gigantic difference in average abilities, the matching means men should play about as well as computers in the control group, so this occurrence wouldn’t be at all surprising. While the computer versus human results would show stereotypes can impact performance, they of course couldn’t imply that stereotypes are mainly responsible for the gap between humans and computers, since the conclusion would be false. There could still be a large between between the average man and average computer, even when the men are falsely told they are playing other men.

    Similar incorrect interpretations are often found in the stereotype threat literature for ethnic group differences in standardized tests, but instead of matched designs these studies instead usually use statistical adjustments for subjects’ previous SAT scores.

    Look carefully before declaring checkmate!

  3. hacksoncode said

    It would be extremely interesting to repeat the experiment and substitute knowledge of the other player’s *chess rating* in place of knowledge about their gender.

  4. almondwine said

    And interesting study, and I’d be even more interested if it had actual data rather than the anecdotes that make up its sample size.

    Three experiments among 42 players? Were observations made among one game, or three? Even if there were three sets of 21 games, I give even money that the observed difference is caused by chance.

    I’d be interested in seeing the sample repeated with 100 players, each playing six games – two controlled, two (correctly) knowing the gender, and two (incorrectly) knowing the gender – without playing the same opponent more than once.

  5. very informative and analytical post in nature. I quite appreciate the thought expressed. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.

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