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Why This Woman Will Destroy You in Chess

June 18, 2013, 5:20 PM

In the middle part of my book Drunk Tank Pink I spend quite a lot of time talking about what the presence of other people does to us.  So would it matter, for example, if I’m playing chess against a computer or against a man or a woman or someone who’s tall or short or attractive or unattractive?

There’s been some fascinating research that suggests that it does matter.  And in one set of experiments some economists looked at the performance of chess grandmasters, the very best chess players in the world across a ten year period.  And what they did was they looked at who the competitors were, and keep in mind that these are the very best players.  They’re very good at what they do. They are arch rationalists. They think very carefully.  They don’t make moves without thinking about what they’re doing.  So if anyone is going to be immune to the sorts of effects I’ve talked about, it’s these people.

And yet what the researchers found was that when heterosexual men are exposed to very attractive female competitors - and they graded this by having people look at the images of all the competitors - they are much more likely to make riskier opening moves.  It’s almost as though it was a throwback to their evolutionary past when the only way to attract these very attractive women was to show that they were better than the alternative – that they were risky.  They were willing to take risks and then therefore they might acquire resources.  

And so these guys when they were faced with these very attractive women were making all sorts of very risky opening moves.  But, of course, in the world of chess, the risky move to open with and indeed as the course of the game went on, isn’t always the best move.  And so these men were making very risky moves and very often they ended up losing.  So there’s an interesting effect there that attractive female competitors led these men to make riskier moves.  And in the end that jeopardized their chances of success.  So even arch rationalists, people who think very carefully, can be swayed by these effects.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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