Competing in a Grand Slam tennis event is not for the faint of heart. Tens of thousands of fans pack the stands. Millions of dollars in prize money is at stake, with equal-size prizes for men and women.
All of which makes these matches an ideal way to examine who chokes under pressure more: men, or women?
It’s an important question, for many reasons. Women represent almost half the workforce in many countries, and yet face a stubborn pay gap. They are also notably under-represented in high-profile, high-paying positions, such as Fortune 500 CEOs, and in fast-growing, well-compensated professions, including those in science, technology and engineering.
Discrimination has been found to play a role, and some suggest that self-selection contributes to the problem (ie women pick lower-paid, lower-profile jobs). A group of researchers tested a third possibility: that men respond better to competitive pressure.
“There are several studies that show that women don’t want to get into a competitive environment, that they shy away from competition,” said Alex Krumer from the University of St. Gallen, one of the co-authors of the study on choking.
Krumer and his colleagues decided to look at the Grand Slam tennis tournaments—the Australian Open, the US Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon—since the tournaments provide reams of data on how men and women perform in a high-stakes setting. The total purse at the 2015 US Open was $42 million, for example, and almost 700,000 people came to watch matches during the tournament.
The pressure index
Of course, losing a game when outmatched is not the same as “choking”—which refers to losing one’s focus and composure in a high-pressure situation. The authors (Danny Cohen-Zada and Mosi Rosenboim from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Offer Moshe Shapir from New York University Shanghai, and Krumer) designed a “pressure index” to figure out which gender was more likely to lose because the stakes were ratcheted up.
Specifically, they looked at game-level data on the first sets of all four Grand Slam tournaments, and within each set, whether and to what extent men’s and women’s performance improved or deteriorated as the stakes rose. In total, they looked at 4,127 women’s games and 4,153 men’s games.
The results? Women perform better under pressure—that is, they choke less than men. A lot less. “If women choke, it is about half as much, or 60% as much, as the choking that exists among men,” said Krumer.
The researchers examined dozens of scenarios and factors to determine the way pressure affected the performance of players. For example, the authors looked at sets where the score reached 4-4 (a player has to get to six games to win, and they have to win by two). They divided the match into two parts—before the score got to 4-4, and after—on the theory that once the score is tied, the pressure is ratcheted up.
In those matches, men lose on their serve 7.2% more after the game reaches 4-4 than before. (The server has a documented advantage: The average pro wins nearly three-quarters of the time when they are serving.) Among women, after the score is 4-4, the probability of losing on their serve is not affected. “There’s no change, no effect on women,” said Krumer. “They play exactly the same.”
The results are even more compelling when you consider that the first set in women’s tennis matters more than men’s: They play best of three sets, compared with men who play best of five. “For a given score in the first set, women face greater pressure than men, because, unlike men, if they lose the first set they must win the next set in order to stay in the match,” the authors write.
The researchers don’t explain why women seem to hold up better under pressure, but the results fall in line with what we know about cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” When people are under pressure, adrenaline and cortisol surge, strongly affecting reasoning and cognition. At low levels, this can be helpful; at high levels it can be detrimental. Research shows that in high-pressure situations, cortisol levels increase more rapidly in men than in women.
What does this mean outside of tennis?
The findings on the court have limited application in the real world. At the Grand Slams, women are competing against women, not men; the real world is co-ed. Also, elite athletes have all been conditioned to deal with high levels of stress, developing stress-coping mechanisms which most of us will never have.
Prior research on whether men or women choke more under pressure more has been mixed. In one lab experiment (simulated, unlike a real Grand Slam tournament), researchers found that when they increased the competitiveness of the environment, men’s performance improved. Women’s performance, meanwhile, didn’t get better when they competed against men, but did when they competed against their own gender.
Other research has shown that women underperform men on high-stakes university entrance exams, including the infamous national university exam in China (pdf) and another in the Czech Republic.
Chances are, there are lots of men and lots of women who respond well to pressure, and that the environment in which they perform—single-sex, co-ed, discriminatory, supportive—matters hugely.
Women, of course, already know that their gender performs well under pressure, as Krumer himself pointed out: “When we found what we found, my wife said she didn’t need any research to know that,” he said.
But in an era when elite university presidents question women’s innate scientific abilities, and the president of the US boasts of his sexual conquests of women, it doesn’t hurt to show that when the going gets tough, it’s the men—not the women—who often break.