Competing for Jobs

By TAN Kee Wee
(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 23 July 2009, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)

Why do pretty girls often end up with unattractive men? Most people would probably say that that’s because she is after his money. Never mind if he has no hair and no teeth.

But there could be another explanation. Let me ask another question. Have you ever restrained yourself from taking the first step to get to know that hunk or that hottie you’ve just spotted?

If your answer is “yes” then the follow-up question is: “Why didn’t you take the first step?” And if your answer is because you feel that you won’t be able to beat the other suitors, then your answer is typical of what the majority would say and do.

In the end, because of your restraint, the hunks and hotties of the world end up with less attractive partners to choose from.

Behavioural economics has also looked into this situation. It found that there is a relationship between the number of participants in a competition and how motivated the participants are.

This conclusion was reached by two behavioural researchers, Stephen Garcia at the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Using scores from the SAT university entrance exams, they found that students’ test scores fell as the number of students in the exam hall increased. Intrigued by the results, the two researchers conducted further tests to determine whether the low scores were due to overcrowding.

In one of the tests, a group of students was asked to take a timed and easy general-knowledge quiz which they must finish as quickly as possible. As an incentive, those who finished in the top 20 percent were given some money.

Even though each student sat for the test alone, half of the students were told that they were competing against ten people. The other half were told that they were competing against 100 people.

The results backed the original finding of a link between test scores and the number of participants. Students who were told that they were competing against ten people performed better than those who were told that they were competing against 100 people.

The students were then questioned to understand their behavior. Eventually, it was found that when the students knew there were few competitors, they figured their chances of getting into the top 20 percent were high. And so they pushed themselves hard.

But when they knew that there were many competitors, they became modest about their ambition to be in the top 20 percent. As a result, they did not try as hard.

This behavior applies to many situations in life. The unemployment issue is one. When newspapers tell us that millions of people are jobless, the unemployed man will assume that his chances of securing a job are very low. In response, he would give up hope of ever looking for a job.

For instance, the latest jobless rate for the US economy is 9.5 percent. But if we were to include those who recently gave up looking for jobs, the figure is higher at 12 percent.

The lesson policy makers can take away from this study is to restrain newspapers from announcing too often that the job situation is bad. Then the jobless will not give up their job search.

And the lesson you and I can take away from this study is: “Let’s not be shy. Let’s ask the hottie out for dinner”.