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Psychol Aging. 2012 Jun;27(2):278-85. doi: 10.1037/a0025655. Epub 2011 Nov 7.

Competitiveness across the life span: the feisty fifties.

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Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-1285, USA.


Existing theories on life span changes in confidence or motivation suggest that individuals' preferences to enter competitive situations should gradually decline with age. We examined competitive preferences in a field experiment using real financial stakes in 25- to 75-year-olds (N = 543). The critical dependent variable was whether participants chose to perform a simple mental arithmetic task either under a piece-rate payment schedule (i.e., $.25 per solved item) or a competitive payment schedule ($.50 per solved item if the overall score is better than that of a randomly selected opponent, $0 otherwise). Results revealed that competitive preferences increased across the life span until they peaked around age 50, and dropped thereafter. We also found that throughout, men had a substantially larger preference for competing than women-extending previous findings on college-aged participants. The age/gender differences in preferences were neither accounted for by actual differences in performance nor individuals' subjective confidence. This first systematic attempt to characterize age differences in competitive behavior suggests that a simple decline conception of competitiveness needs to be reconsidered.

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