Women are oft depicted as sensitive, vulnerable, weaker-willed; but the topic of a recent paper suggests that despite the stereotype, women handle pressure better than men — in tennis, at the very least. The study, titled Choking Under Pressure and Gender: Evidence from Professional Tennis, was published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics. It found that in the game of tennis, when the stakes are high, big bucks are involved, and plenty of fans are watching their every move, male players are likelier to choke under pressure.
Researchers looked at data from 2010's four Grand Slam tournaments (where prizes can get as high as $3.5 million) to determine whether tennis players' performance got better or worse as the stakes got higher. Examining over 4,100 games for each gender, they found that men consistently caved under competitive pressure. Women aren't immune to this pressure, and they still succumbed to it — but only about half as often as men did. Making this comparison even more interesting is that in tennis, men's matches are best of five. Women's are best of three. It's arguable that women should be under more pressure, because if they lose the first one, they have to win the next set if they want to stay in the game.
While the results of this study certainly suggest that female tennis pros can handle the heat better than men, one cannot take this assertion and apply it to every scenario in life; and there are instances when women apparently have the disadvantage. For example, other research has found that women perform better in same-sex competition compared to competition against men, leaving one wondering how a high-stakes, pro tennis match between a man and woman would go.
This is not the first study to examine how men and women differ when it comes to handling stress. Some research says that although women are likelier to report physical side effects from stress, they are better at maintaining close relationships with people in their lives — and this, in turn, can help them better manage stress.
While being more social creatures helps women in handling stress, the same is true for the reverse: In an attempt to handle stress, women become more social — the findings of a different study led by psychologist Claus Lamm. Lamm found that in stressful situations, while both men and women do have the same physiological reaction, our way of coping differs consistently: men become more egocentric and women become more social and empathetic.
Do we know why women can sometimes handle pressure better? Well, there have been a few proposed explanations. One theory says that because women have more oxytocin in their bodies (the hormone associated with social behaviors), they are physiologically more likely to look for support when they're feeling stressed. Yet another study using rats found that estrogen causes females to respond to repeated stress better than male rats. Sure enough, lowering the estrogen in females made them respond more like the males; and when estrogen signaling was activated in the males, the negative effects of stress were blocked.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, could also be a part of the conversation. When under pressure, our cortisol levels increase, affecting our reasoning and cognition. If this happens only a little bit, it can help us; but at higher levels, it can be harmful. Some research has shown that in stressful situations, cortisol levels increase faster in men than in women.
Regardless, these results force us to acknowledge at least one thing: Women aren't the delicate flowers some people think they are.