The answer is: It’s a game show that provides surprising clues about sex, social rules and risk-taking.
And the question is: What is Jeopardy!?
Two Swedish researchers, writing in the journal Economics Letters, report an intriguing pattern of behavior by contestants on the popular quiz program. Women, it seems, take fewer risks when their Jeopardy! opponents are men.
Gabriella Sjogren Lindquist and Jenny Save-Soderbergh of the Swedish Institute for Social Research looked at 206 episodes of Jeopardy!, focusing on those moments when one of the three contestants must decide how much to wage on a Daily Double.
For those unfamiliar with the Jeopardy!, Daily Doubles pop up at random during the course of play. Rather than wagering a set amount on whether they will know the answer to a question (the show’s usual format), contestants are given the opportunity to bet as much or as little as they like, up to the amount of money they have accumulated to that point.
The researchers tallied the results of 615 Daily Doubles, featuring 251 male and 65 female contestants. (The same contestant can play several Daily Doubles during the course of the show, and still more if he or she wins and returns the next day.)
The researchers found “no systemic gender differences in performance,” either on the Daily Double questions or the final scores. But they also determined that “male players are more likely to give the correct answer when competing against males only.” Perhaps man-to-man competition, which played a vital role in our evolutionary past, sharpens the male mind.
Most intriguingly, the researchers found females “apply a more conservative wagering strategy” when their two opponents are both male. Compared to instances when they're up against two women, or a man and a woman, “Women wager 25 percent less of their accumulated score on average” when they’re competing against two men.
“Men do not display this behavior,” they add.
As the researchers concede, Jeopardy! contestants — who are self-selected and presumably higher in extroversion than the average person — may not precisely mirror society as a whole. So these findings can’t be extrapolated too far.
That said, the results mimic those of a 2009 study, which found girls educated in same-sex schools are more willing to take risks than those who were educated alongside boys.
To Lindquist and Save-Soderbergh, this suggests that gender differences in risk-taking are “socially driven,” which “could be one explanation to there being fewer women at the top end of the wage distribution.” If business is a male-dominated world, and women are socialized to play it safe in such an environment, they are less likely to take the sorts of risks that have huge payoffs.
While that interpretation seems reasonable, one additional result from the Jeopardy! experiment is worth noting. In terms of the final outcome of the games, women performed “significantly better” when competing against two men. So their reduced risk-taking paid off.
Perhaps they realized that, when competing against testosterone-driven opponents, playing it safe is the smartest strategy.