A study has found that men are more likely than women to sabotage an opponent in a competition because they are afraid someone will do it to them.
Competition was found to bring about unethical behaviour in both sexes in a trial, but one of them was quicker to resort to sabotage than the other.
Men were less reserved about paying to reduce the performance of the person they were up against.
And the researchers found this was because they subconsciously overestimated how likely it was to happen to them, whereas women estimated the risk accurately.
In the experiment, by researchers at Bonn University in Germany, the participants were told to encode words by using a sequence of numbers.
For each correct coding, they were given points and the person scoring most points received a bonus.
On average, women and men showed a similar performance, meaning both genders would have about the same chance to win the competition against each other.
However a difference emerged when people were offered the option to reduce their opponents’ scores by spending money.
Men turned to sabotage more than women, investing more money in reducing the performance of the competitor.
Professor Petra Nieken from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, who was involved in the study, said: ‘Either you work harder to increase your performance or you reduce the performance of your opponent. All activities to reduce performance of others are referred to as sabotage.
‘For this reason, they [men] win more often, although men and women reach the same performance on the average.’
Dr Simon Dato, of Bonn University, said: ‘We wanted to clearly show the gender difference in unethical conduct, i.e. sabotage, and understand the underlying mechanisms in order to develop countermeasures in the long term.’
While men sabotage more, they also systematically over estimate the sabotage threat against them – leading researchers to conclude this was the reason for men’s propensity for sabotage.
Women, by contrast, realistically assess the sabotage level.
Professor Nieken said: ‘Women and men do not have different moral values, but men more strongly perceive their environment as competitive.’
When men are informed of the actual threat of sabotage against them (lower than they expected) they reduce their level of attack to match – causing the best person to ‘win’ and meaning women are not systematically disadvantaged.
The study suggested that in the real world sabotage could include depriving competitors of important information about customers or business partners, not informing others of meeting dates, or deleting the hard disk.
Professor Nieken said this finding could counteract sabotage taking place in the workplace.
It could allow companies to create awareness of male reaction to the perceived and often imagined threat of sabotage.
She added: ‘It is the goal to promote the best. If the “wrong” person is promoted systematically, this is disadvantageous for both the losers and the company.’
Results of the experiment are published under the title ‘Gender Difference in Sabotage: The Role of Uncertainty and Beliefs’ in the Experimental Economics journal.