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Why women must be be likeable, and men don't

February 2, 2020

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Why women must be be likeable, and men don't

A new study in The Economic Journal finds that likeability is an influencing factor in interactions between women, as well as interactions between men and women, but not in all-male interactions.

The researchers conducted experiments where participants rated the likeability of other participants, based on photographs. The participants were divided into pairs who then played games with each other where rewards depended on the degree of cooperation.

In one version, participants chose to contribute any sum out of an initial stake of 6 euros to a joint project. Overall, men contributed on average 4.05 euros, and women contributed 3.92 euros. Researchers found that in same-sex pairings, men in low as well as high mutual likeability teams contributed similar amounts, suggesting likeability was not a factor in determining contribution. However, if mutual likeability in all-female teams was low, women contributed 30% less on average.

In mixed-sex pairings for the cooperation game, female participants contributed on average 4.70 euros in high mutual likeability teams, and about 37% less in low mutual likeability teams. In contrast to same sex teams, the likeability effect for men factored in mixed sex teams. If mutual likeability was low, men's contribution was 50% lower than if mutual likeability was high.

In the ten round coordination game, researchers found that women in same-sex pairings chose significantly lower numbers in low mutual likeability teams than in high mutual likeability teams in each round of the game. Male participants in same-sex pairings chose high numbers from the start, regardless of the level mutual likeability. In mixed sex teams, mutual likeability was on average positively associated with the number chosen for both women and men.

What the researchers say: “Our results point to the existence of a likeability factor that offers a novel perspective on gender differences in labor market outcomes,” said the paper's lead author. “While likeability matters for women in every one of their interactions, it matters for men only if they interact with the opposite sex.”

Researchers concluded that for women, likeability is an asset in all interactions. For men, likeability matters only in interactions with the opposite sex.

So, what? This is a very interesting study. A lot of research has shown that high-performing teams are composed of people who like and respect each other and which are diverse in terms of gender and background. This study seems to confirm, yet again, that this is so.

The difference between men and women in their need for likability can be explained in evolutionary terms. Because of their neurogenetics, women are better at forming and maintaining relationships. This is because they would find it difficult to raise children without the help of other band members in hunter-gatherer times (the well-known phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind). Being likable would help enormously in encouraging support.

Hunters and warriors (predominantly men) don’t have the same need to like or be liked. However, to attract a mate a man had to show likeability (i.e. the capacity to provide emotional as well as physical support).

The more mutual support, the more collaboration—then and now.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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February 2, 2020
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