Competition, part II
Dominance Hierarchies, Deceit, and Self-Deception
Please read Competition, part I, for background on sex differences, gender differences, the distinction between sex and gender, division of labor, and why the finding that “women enjoy and engage in competition less frequently than do men” is almost certainly wrong.
This essay is about competition that has ramifications in the social hierarchy. I am mostly talking here not about sport, per se, although sport is a formalized form of competition that historically was far more a male than a female phenomenon. That said, I end this essay with an extended anecdote / argument about how, in at least one sport that I am well familiar with, co-ed play is the most interesting and engaging. This, I hope, can provide inspiration for coexistence and collaboration across many domains.
Setting the Stage
As a species, we have, for a very long time, been perfecting the art of cooperating to compete1. Cooperation is not always about competition in the narrow sense, of course—women, for instance, have historically engaged in affiliative and cooperative defensive behaviors with one another that reduce infanticide and rape, and facilitate allomothering2. But it is also true that cooperation within a friend group can be a form of competition against other such groups. Within women, again, see nearly all representations of high school and college cliques, such as in the movies Mean Girls (2004) and Heathers (1989)3. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this essay, that friendships between women are a rich, necessary, and often fraught landscape4.
In those species that have what might be considered friendships—which includes elephants, dolphins, many primates, and more—we also find dominance hierarchies. Dominance hierarchies describe the rules for engagement between members of one’s own sex, both competitive and cooperative, and it is precisely this kind of competition—the kind that facilitates social dominance—that I am focused on in this essay. In other species of primates, there tend to be female-dominance hierarchies, or male-dominance hierarchies. Less commonly does a species contain dominance hierarchies for both sexes5, one notable exception being chacma baboons, which live in large, mixed-sex social groups with distinct dominance hierarchies for both sexes6. The rules of dominance hierarchies vary by primates species—who is dominant to whom, and how that is determined, and how it is challenged. Dominance hierarchies are not inherently linear, although people tend to default to assuming that they are. And when two different hierarchies, one for each sex, show up in the same species—as in both baboons and humans—the rules, and enforcement thereof, also vary by sex. Dominance hierarchies are nearly ubiquitous in social species, but that doesn’t mean that the rules are universal.
The point is this: modernity is confusing for all sorts of reasons, and one of them is that we have thrown out many ancient ways of being. Sometimes we have done so for good reason. Most of the changes that have emancipated women and allowed us the full freedom of choice and opportunity to become our best selves fall into this category. But such changes come with costs that we discuss too rarely. If—as I argue below—male dominance hierarchies have historically been maintained through overt means, and female dominance hierarchies have historically been maintained through covert means, then dropping us into a social stew together, in which males and females are explicitly pitted against each other in a quest for a single currency, to work together while pretending that we all understand and play by the same rules, is to invite discord at best, disaster at worst.
Men and women negotiate disagreements (including jostling for social position) differently for several reasons. Anatomical and physiological distinctions between the sexes reveal some of these. While humans are not as sexually dimorphic as many other species of primates7, we remain dimorphic in several regards. Women are on average, for instance, smaller, and have a greater tendency to experience muscle atrophy8. Furthermore, until fairly recently, gestation and lactation reliably added constraints to the lives of women at peak physical fitness. Thus, men have been the ones to go out hunting and to war, and on other dangerous missions, while women have tended to gather vegetal foods and hunt smaller prey, and these divergent activities facilitate the evolution of distinct social strategies as well (see the table of 50 activities from 185 pre-industrial societies9, split by which sex tends to do them, from part I, if you are looking for more examples).
Extended hunting expeditions require physical bravery and personal courage. There can be no ambiguity about what everyone’s role is in the moment. Warfare is the same: There is no time for prevarication, or protecting people’s feelings, and people must accept their roles even as they compete to reorder them. Thus, overt competition would emerge as the norm under such selective pressures, and men would thus tend towards it.
Men are more likely to engage in overt than covert competition, but why are women the opposite? One reason that women tend to use language and behavioral modification rather than blows is nearly the inverse of that described for men: spending so much time closer to home, in the company of other women in which the stakes tend to be lower in the moment, making social connections and discovering truths is more easily done—and at less personal risk—through language.
Another reason that women tend to use language and behavioral modification rather than blows, and often coded language at that, is that in interactions between the sexes, the smaller size and strength of women would make overt, physical competition a losing move for women. Having been effectively pushed into using a covert toolkit when in disagreement with men, women tend to use the same toolkit with other women as well. There is evidence, for instance, that women are more likely than men to choose solitary competition in which their competitors are not present, over direct confrontations that are zero-sum or otherwise have clear winners in the moment10.
Female competition thus tends to contain more cryptic tactics than does male competition11. The fact that male dominance precisely tends to be litigated in the open, means that it can be pointed out and shut down, both when it needs to be, and when it doesn’t. Conversely, the fact that female dominance tends to be litigated cryptically, in private conversations, means that it can not so easily be pointed out and shut down, even when it should be12.
Historically, though, male-typical competition is visible, overt, and finite in its nature. Female-typical competition is more cryptic and covert, and has boundaries that are looser. Overt games have clear borders, both in space and time, or at least they’re supposed to. In male-typical competition both the games themselves, and the rules of the games tend to be clear. In female-typical social competition, by contrast, both the game and its rules may be difficult to detect. And this difficulty of detection may precisely, in turn, be part of the game. Crypsis can be a powerful adaptive move—if your competitors can’t see you coming, they may well be less prepared, especially if it’s not even clear that a game is on.
Deceit and Self-Deception
Covert competition can take on many forms. It ranges from coyness and consideration for the feelings of others; to gossip, innuendo, and off the record conversations; to secrecy and outright lies. If we accept the combination of theoretical reasons to predict that women will engage in more covert competition than men, and the empirical research that supports these predictions13, then we are left with an awkward truth: women are likely to engage not just in more coyness and protection of other people’s feelings than are men, but also in more secrecy and lies14.
Now add this to the mix: people are more likely to associate women with being victims, and men with being perpetrators15.
Finally, recognize that the most successful cryptic competition may well be hidden from everyone, players included. Deceit is often more effective when it begins at home, in the form of self-deception16. While the empirical evidence seems a bit weak so far, women may be particularly prone to self-deception, at least with regard to their degree of conformity to social and ethical norms17.
If this last is true, we have a perfect storm. Women
are more likely to settle differences covertly rather than overtly,
are more regularly assumed to be victims than perpetrators, and
may be particularly effective at self-deception.
Given all of this, I hypothesize that women are less likely than men to either recognize or acknowledge their own competitive behaviors as such. This is due to
competition having been framed in male terms,
covert competition itself being more easily hidden even from those engaging in it, and
covert competition being less successful when it is public, as its very existence is threatened with exposure18.
When asked to join a pick-up game of basketball, a guy can easily say, “no man, I’m good,” and be done with it. Of course, a woman who is asked to join a pick-up game of basketball can respond in exactly the same way. But competition in women is more likely to be social, and covert, and thus more difficult for women to opt out of “play” with other women. There is generally no overt ask in female competition. There is, indeed, little that happens for public consumption. A woman who has no interest in social games—or not now, or not with these people, or not under these circumstances—has no easy route to saying “I don’t want to play.”
Male competition is inherently public—this is part of its function. By comparison, female competition, having had distinct selective pressures which have driven it underground, is less straightforward. Indeed, perhaps because opting out of a covert game could in itself be another kind of covert game, attempts to opt out will often be seen as competitive in and of themselves, thus creating a competitive situation when that was specifically what the woman may have wanted to avoid by opting out.
Covert competition thus sets the stage for both confusion and mixed messages, between not being able to opt out, and the game itself making it difficult to clearly point to someone and say, "you are engaged in this competition and it’s time to stop.” I propose that this is part of why many functional systems, like science and business, operate in more male-typical than female-typical ways: overt rules and expectations facilitate accountability.
Mixing Hierarchies in Modernity
Status inequalities have been with us since we became social, which goes far back into our primate history, if not earlier yet. But as I mentioned earlier, all other species that are social and have dominance hierarchies either have distinct hierarchies for each sex, or more commonly, only one sex has a recognizable hierarchy at all. This is not the case for humans.
In modernity, we live in large, mixed-sex groups, working and playing side-by-side, the implicit understanding being that there is a single mixed-sex hierarchy to which we all belong. The rules that govern how we are supposed to behave under such conditions, if they exist or are agreed upon at all, are very new. At best, the rules are difficult to interpret. We arrived here, in part, due to greater social and professional mobility for women, and this is a sign of progress. But the greater difficulty in interpreting the hierarchy, and in understanding how to work within it, is also a downside that most of us were not expecting. It is incumbent on us to figure out how to work together, and to play to all of our strengths.
Understanding differences between men and women empowers us. It allows us to make informed decisions about how we conduct ourselves as individuals and as a society. Science is the tool that brings us that understanding—specifically, evolutionary theory. What follows are a set of hypotheses that I have generated and introduced throughout the text19. With them come testable predictions and the ability to recognize the uniqueness of women rather than homogenize them with men.
Detection of Competition by Others: Female-typical competition being more covert than male-typical competition, with looser boundaries in both space and time, both the competitive game and the rules of the game will be more difficult to detect. This is itself one of the advantages of this mode of competition.
Detection of Competition by Self: The covert nature of female competition means that women themselves will be less likely than men to either recognize or acknowledge their own competitive behaviors.
Opting Out of the Game: The ambiguous borders around covert, female-typical competition will contribute to making it more difficult to opt out, in contrast to overt, male-typical competition, where opting out of clearly defined events is as simple as saying no.
Modern Relations Between the Sexes: Mixed sex hierarchies, which do not fully abide by either male or female-typical rules of competition, will be fragile, especially absent the formal establishment of rules of engagement. With specific reference to mentorship, or any relationship with an age or power disparity:
Male-style engagement, being more overt and amenable to explicit rules, will be more effective. -or-
Breaking the expectations of either sex-specific hierarchy is useful, such that, for instance, mentorship by a member of the opposite sex is more effective. If so, a further prediction is that:
mixed-sex teams are predicted to do better than single-sex teams of either sex, except in situations where raw power or physicality decide outcomes.
To this last point, on the greater competitive advantage of mixed-sex teams, I would point out that I hope it is true, but that I also believe it to be true. Understanding the competitive differences between men and women will aid us, not only in improving the lives of men and women individually, but in better understanding our society, how its structure serves or hinders us, and how we might apply our knowledge of competition to live up to our fullest potential.
In conclusion, I will end with an extended excerpt from an essay I wrote in March 2019, International Women’s Day, and Its Discontents:
For many years, I played Ultimate Frisbee. Ultimate, as it is generally called, is a team sport that is a little like soccer, a little like football, and a lot like having athletic fun on a field with thirteen other people (if you’ve got that many) and a frisbee. Ultimate, unlike many team sports, is actually compelling as a coed game20, and not dangerous to the women involved. I played on and captained coed Summer League teams, played pick-up many times a week for years, played in day-long tournaments, and was, for a year, on the women’s team for the University of Michigan, which traveled many weekends to play. And so I played a little all-women Ultimate, and watched a little all-men Ultimate, and played and watched a lot of coed Ultimate.
Among other things, I observed this:
All-male games are fast and furious. The points are quick, the throws thrown far downfield (hucks) long, the layouts exhilarating, and, in many points, most players never touch the disk. Victory is boisterous and infectious and loud.
All-female games are slower, more careful, less risky. When a player does go long, sprinting to the end zone in hopes of receiving a long pass, she is generally left hanging, no disk coming her way. Short passes down the field are the rule, and they are thoughtful, and considered.
It drove me, and my dear friend Toni, a bit mad.
We both liked to go long, and throw long, and so we played more like the boys in that way. We were both extremely good players. But if Toni or I were playing on a coed team, and we were up against another team that had one less woman on it, such that one of us was on defense against a skilled male athlete—or that skilled male athlete was defending us when we had the disk—we were (almost) always outmatched.
That’s just true. It’s not brainwashed or misogynistic to say so. Frankly, it would be both brainwashed and misogynistic to claim the opposite.
I loved playing Ultimate, and loved watching it. I never did enjoy watching all-male games, or playing all-female games, as much as I loved playing and watching coed games. Coed games brought out the best of both approaches. Coed games were faster paced than the sometimes ponderous all-female ones, but, compared to all-male games, more players generally got to touch the disk, their contributions adding to the game. Coed games were a richer mixture of short back-and-forth passes and long hucks down the field. In Ultimate Frisbee, men and women played a more interesting, and to me a more rewarding, game, when we played together. And that has been my experience in the rest of life, too.
Subscribe for free to receive weekly essays to your inbox. Become a paying subscriber and receive audio reads of Tuesday essays, comment on posts, and receive occasional other writings.
Much of this week’s post is based on a scholarly paper that I was invited to write early last year, which was published early this year: Heying, H.E., 2022. Covert vs. Overt: Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Sex Differences in Competition. Archives of Sexual Behavior, pp.1-5. Herein I have made the arguments less technical, and excluded some of the analysis, including all mention of patrilocality, mating systems, and Operational Sex Ratios. If those things sound like your cup of tea, however, find the original here.
Alexander 1990. How did humans evolve? Reflections on the uniquely unique species. Special Publication No. 1. Museum of Zoology, The University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI.
see e.g., Hrdy 1999. Mother nature: A history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York. -and- Smuts 1995. The evolutionary origins of patriarchy. Human Nature 6(1): 1-32.
Also see Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides, in which Lila Wingo is a woman excluded by other women, their friendship wagon circled against her. As remembered by her son many years later: “It was a joy to watch her walk, to see the eyes of men attendant and respectful as she approached. The eyes of women registered something else when my mother passed. I watched the women of Colleton withhold approval as my mother made her way past storefronts.”
Friendship between females has long been an interest of mine. My undergraduate thesis (in Anthropology at UCSC, 1992) was titledMeasures of Attractiveness Among Old World Monkeys: How Unrelated Females Choose Their Friends. For those interested in my analysis of some of the social conditions that drive the evolution of female friendship in human cultures, please see Heying 2022. I have left this analysis out of the current essay, as it relies on several technical terms that are beyond the purview of this article. In summary, I posit that “in patrilocal, monogamous cultures, with an OSR (Operational Sex Ratio) that is 1:1 or male-biased, we should see selection for the development of female friendships among non-kin (Hypothesis 1).”
This may be an artifact of the difficulty of discerning two different hierarchies in a non-human species.
Cheney & Seyfarth 2008. Baboon metaphysics: The evolution of a social mind. University of Chicago Press.
Plavcan 2001. Sexual dimorphism in primate evolution. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 116(S33): 25-53.
Rosa-Caldwell & Greene 2019. Muscle metabolism and atrophy: let’s talk about sex. Biology of Sex Differences, 10(1): 1-14.
Murdock & Provost 1973. Factors in the division of labor by sex: A cross-cultural analysis. Ethnology 12(2): 203-225.
Benenson & Abadzi 2020. Contest versus scramble competition: Sex differences in the quest for status. Current opinion in psychology 33: 2-68.
Hare & Simmons 2019. Sexual selection and its evolutionary consequences in female animals. Biological Reviews, 94(3: 929-956.
This, in turn, suggests a possible explanation for another modern phenomenon: the spread of covert competition over overt. Overt competition may in fact be an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS) only in the context of a significant power disparity between the sexes. As that disparity is reduced, covertness will take over the competitive landscape by, in part, punishing overt attempts to compete. The ambiguous nature of covertness makes it unapproachable by overt means, while overt strategies are easily identified and therefore easily targeted. Without an insulating power differential overtness is vulnerable to invasion by covertness. This warrants further exploration another place and time.
As cited extensively in Reynolds 2021. Our grandmothers’ legacy: Challenges faced by female ancestors leave traces in modern women’s same-sex relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior. See especially: Archer 2004. Sex differences in aggression in real-world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology 8: 291–322. -and- Card et al 2008. Direct and indirect aggression during childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review of gender differences, intercorrelations, and relations to maladjustment. Child Development 79: 1185–1229.
Furthermore, men are particularly prone to being taken in by women’s lies if they come in certain forms—with the suggestion of sexual access, for instance, or by triggering the “damsel in distress” circuit, as with tears, or claims of imminent danger or fear. Female (and some male) bystanders not thus engaged may roll their eyes and ask why the men can’t see through the deceit, but such eye-rolling rarely mitigates the effects. In a later essay, perhaps, I will explore this further.
Reynolds et al 2020. Man up and take it: Gender bias in moral typecasting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 161: 120-141.
Trivers 2011. The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books (AZ).
Dalton & Ortegren 2011. Gender differences in ethics research: The importance of controlling for the social desirability response bias. Journal of Business Ethics, 103(1): 73-93.
In a future essay, I will explore (related) sex differences in attitudes towards censorship, conformity, and social desirability.
I have excluded, in this essay, the first of five hypotheses that I lay out in Covert vs. Overt: Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Sex Differences in Competition, due its technical nature. It is this: Friendship: Societies with traditions of patrilocality and monogamy, and OSRs (Operational Sex Ratios) that rarely skew heavily female, are predicted to have experienced selective pressure for stronger friendships between unrelated women than in societies not meeting these criteria.
Why Ulimate works as a coed sport is itself an interesting question. One obvious reason is that it is intended to be a non-contact sport (although in practice this is not always the case). Another is that there are multiple kinds of defense possible, which can be easily changed between points, at least if you are playing at a high enough level that all players know how to play a zone defense. Playing a zone defense can mitigate the effects of having one or two players who are slower, shorter, or otherwise weaker than other team members. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that you cannot run with the disk. You must throw it to move it down the field, the implications of which are that limitations on an individual’s speed or stamina do not inherently constrain a team’s potential success, especially if the slower or more quickly winded players have other strengths. This also goes to explaining why, at least in high-level pick-up games, players’ ages often span many decades, from teenagers to people in their 40s, and beyond. Older players aren’t going to be the ones laying out in the end zone, but they may well read the field better than those who are, and so be able to place the disk appropriately when nobody else does.