Selection into economic games

Buckert et al. uses a traditional economic game, tournament versus piece-rate compensation for simple arithmetic problems, combined with the psychological approach of measuring physiological responses during the game (looking at heart rate, arterial pressure, and hormone levels) along with subjective self-report about how stressful the game was, to explore how economic games psychologically affect their participants. Importantly, while the experimental group was forced into the tournament (competitive) condition on the second round, they also got to choose between a tournament and a piece-rate condition for the third round, so the effects of selecting into a competitive environment on the perception of stress and physiological reactions were also explored.

The self-selection into the competitive condition is what I find most compelling about this study – while those selecting into the piece-rate option had a lower heart-rate and lower testosterone levels during the tournament option in round 2, those selecting into the tournament option had elevated heart rate and testosterone during the tournament rounds (rounds 2 and 3). The authors connect this to the coping styles for these two groups – those opting to compete tend to see competition as challenging, not threatening, and are considered more confident, while those opting for piece-rate see competition as threatening, so they choose to avoid it.

This is relevant to the greater reality of our society, as we must ask whether individuals truly have the option to select into or out of competitive environments in real life? A lot of our time in class has explored whether the underlying assumption that everything is competitive is really valid, and this touches on the question above. If competition is not necessarily injected into everything we do in life, then it follows that those who are competing are only those who are choosing to compete. If that is the case, then those engaged in competition are more likely to have the appropriate coping methods described in the paper – with higher confidence and a more positive view of competition – and thus are less likely to be harmed by competition, while those who are averse to competition opt out, and avoid the potential stress and harmful effects that come with it. That doesn’t actually sound that bad, if that were truly the case, since no one who doesn’t want to compete has to, so they don’t need to suffer the consequences. Circumstances like this do exist when considering environments like the stock market – one can choose to invest money or not, and if you would rather not take the risk, then you can just stick your money under a mattress, or put it in a savings account (though that would also be a form of investment, it certainly doesn’t hold the same competitive and risk-taking feeling that stock market investment does). But this doesn’t necessarily apply to other circumstances, so it’s not a generalizable claim.

Consider education, an aspect of life that is considered essential, and, while it’s technically a choice, it’s a choice that most of society will opt into or be forced into by higher forces (be them parents or the government). Standardized testing serves as a way to rank students, and creates competition in an environment where a lot of the participants in the competitive environment have not opted to be a part of it. As such, these participants do not have the appropriate coping strategies, as they see competition as threatening, and are therefore more likely to fail (as explained in the paper). While there will certainly also be students who would have selected into the competitive environment, the competition in the education system is not one where participants get a choice between a competitive and non-competitive environment, which arguably leaves students who would not necessarily select into the competition at a disadvantage, as their physiological reactions, as well as subjective perception of the circumstance, sets them up for failure.

It would be interesting to see how physiological responses to competition in the two very different circumstances described above compare. As dankim17 points out, experimental studies have the power to enable comparisons and provide a “common lens” between wildly different discourse communities and competitive circumstances, so I would love to see that thinking applied to future research, where this same methodology measuring physiological reactions is applied to the real life economic games that are the stock market and education.


  1. Hi Dcorrech! Thanks for writing this interesting post, I really enjoyed reading it. I also found, on reading Buckert et al, the “self-selection” sections intriguing. I interpreted self-selection, as discussed in this paper, to be about agency—self-selection implies that people will chose the option that is best for them. It is not necessarily that some people enjoy or don’t enjoy competition for no reason, but that some people have the skills or coping methods in order to see competition as challenging instead of threatening. An example of this in the context of Buckert et al’s study would be that participants who feel very confident in their arithmetic skills would be more likely to see this competition as challenging instead of threatening, and vice versa. While some people probably have an inclination one way or another, I think self-selection into or out of competition is probably highly situational and mutable. That’s just my perspective, however! I think Buckert et al is more interested in delineating the evidence for self-selection, instead of theorizing people’s motivations.

    You also raise the question of agency and whether people truly have the option to opt-in or -out of competitive situations, in the context of education. I think, in addition to how people may not have a lot of agency in whether they opt-in to education, there is also the matter of how much choice people have within these institutions—students certainly aren’t the ones “calling the shots,” so to say, about the degree of competition they have to undergo. If certain students are physiologically or otherwise more primed to thrive under competitive circumstances, and students may not have many choices about their educational context, then this does seem pretty unfair. I guess the question is whether the answer to this problem lies in making it so all students see their competitive surroundings as invigorating rather than threatening, or whether we need to change the competitive circumstances altogether, or perhaps something else entirely.


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