This Week in Bad Science: Men Crack Under Pressure More Than Women

A new study wants you to believe that male athletes lose their cool when the game is on the line.

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Nov 18 2016, 8:13pm

You may have heard this week that male athletes are more likely to choke under pressure than their female counterparts, according to a study published on ResearchGate.

You may have also seen the results of the study, from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, reported as fact by three major news outlets. One article even said women "have a competitive advantage."  

As fun as it would be to make broad gender-based generalizations, the claim just doesn't hold up. After consulting three leading sports psychologists and a gender economist, we found this study to be about as watertight as a cheesegrater. At press time, the study's authors had not returned requests for comment. 

For background, the four economists analyzed the outcomes of 4,127 women's and 4,153 men's professional tennis games during the 2010 Grand Slam tour in order to determine the ways men and women respond to competitive pressure. The authors defined competitive pressure as "whether and how much each gender deteriorates or improves at crucial stages of the match." 

To determine "competitive pressure," they collected and organized scoring data from the 8,280 total tennis matches into low-stakes and high-stakes games. Probability models determined the importance of winning the first set, and the probability of winning the match if they did win the set. They concluded that, under high-stakes situations, men were considerably more likely to choke, while women showed no statistical increase in the likelihood of choking. Fascinating cocktail-party fodder. 

But: The problem is that the study authors didn't analyze the perception of pressure under their definition of "high-stakes situations"—they assumed that all players perceived that they were under pressure in high-stakes situations. That's a strategy Southern Methodist University professor Derek Marr says is flawed, because it doesn't consider the individual's perception of competitive pressure.

"Pressure is an emotion," Marr says. "It cannot be assigned. A tennis player may find themselves in a situation that many people find themselves—feeling pressure—but the methods of data collection do not include athletes' perception of their individual situation." 

Had the researchers done post-game interviews to inquire about the players' perceptions about choking, in other words, the responses would have been more scientifically valid. Marr also notes that the study includes very few references to psychological journals, which would have been key. 

Brian Zuleger, a mental strength coach at Adams State University, says the study reads like "armchair quarterbacking." The existing research on competitive pressure and performance states that the ability to handle pressure situations depends on a myriad of factors, not gender specifically. 

"It really it comes down to preparation," Zuleger says. "How somebody is going to handle a pressure situation—like those match points—that's a scenario where you could practice and develop mechanisms on how to approach that."

And Rick McGuire, director of the Missouri Institute for Positive Coaching and author of The Power of Positive Coaching, says he isn't aware of any previous research that shows a gendered difference in sports pressure management.

"There's absolutely no evidence anywhere that would allow someone to make that claim and have [peer-reviewed] researched evidence—legitimate, valid evidence—that would substantiate that claim," McGuire says. "There is none. It would be a total disservice to both men and women to have this research see the light of day as if it were supporting a truth."

So how did the flawed study end up on your newsfeed? 

For starters, ResearchGate (where the paper appeared) is a social networking site for researchers and scientists to share papers and find collaborators. It is not a peer-reviewed academic journal, which means papers like this one don't undergo the rigorous critique that ensures the validity of published scientific research. The authors consider the study to be a "working paper," meaning it's too soon to accept the findings as fact. 

On Nov. 10, Science Daily picked up the paper, under the headline "Male athletes more likely to choke under pressure." A headline the next day read, "Apparently, Female Athletes Are Less Likely to Crack Under Pressure," and it was reported as fact by two more major media organizations before the end of the week. This non-critical domino effect explains how a non-peer reviewed paper can go viral and, without critique, become understood as scientific fact. 

We still don't know whether or not men are more prone to choking in high-pressure situations. But we do propose a test: Roger Federer vs. Serena Williams, one point, winner take all. 

Image: Peter Bernik/Stocksy