Beauty Queens and Battling Knights

9/30/2011 – Male chess players choose riskier and more aggressive chess openings when playing against attractive women compared to when playing against less attractive women, although the Elo rating and style of play are the same. The scientists who have found this out are asking our readers to participate in a one-minute survey of their own behavior. You can win $500 if you do.

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Risk-taking and attractiveness in chess

In a recent research project on expert chess players, scientists found that male chess players choose more aggressive chess openings on average when playing against good-looking female opponents compared to when playing against less attractive female opponents, although they are equally skilled, experienced and of similar age. This increased aggressiveness, which corresponds to about one percentage point, does not improve performance (it rather decreases performance, although the difference is not significantly different from zero). Female players do not change their choice of opening strategy depending on the attractiveness of the opponent. The researchers also found that men, when playing against an attractive woman, are less interested in an early or arranged draw (defined as a draw in less than twenty moves). That is, they are not as interested in a peaceful outcome as when they play against a less attractive woman.

All in all, this indicates that male players behave more aggressively when confronted by a beautiful woman. The reason for this behaviour was not investigated in the study, but it certainly directs our thoughts towards some kind of alpha-male behaviour. And although such behaviour does not pay off on the chess board, it might generate some added value in what follows after the game has ended. The measured effects, however, are average effects, implying that not all players need to follow this behaviour. Nevertheless, similar results have been found in other studies, for instance that male bank employees take higher risks when approving loans to attractive women.

ChessBase interviewed Patrik Gränsmark (above), who is a leading Scandinavian researcher studying this topic. The other researchers are Anna Dreber, Christer Gerdes and Michael Rosholm.

ChessBase: In your research you find that men choose more aggressive openings against good-looking women?

Patrik Gränsmark: Yes, actually we find that the more attractive the female opponent, the more aggressive the opening. And this holds also when comparing two female opponents with the same Elo rating.

How did you obtain the data to carry out this analysis?

Well, to begin with we actually used the data available in Chessbase 10, where we had about 30,000 players and about 1.5 million games. All players had an Elo of at least 2000.

First of all how do you know whether an opening is to be regarded as aggressive or solid?

We let eight expert chess players with an Elo of between 2000 and 2600 classify all the 500 Eco codes as being either solid, aggressive or neutral. Six out of eight had to agree to classify an opening as being solid or aggressive. This was described in an article on your news page.

And secondly: how did you measure the attractiveness of the players?  

That was the tricky part. We turned to Amazon.com which offers an online labor market. We then paid 2,000 people in the USA to rate photos of the players as regards attractiveness. We used about 600 of the photos supplied in the Players Encyclopedia of Chessbase 10. The players were rated on a scale from zero to ten, and we then calculated the mean rating for each photo. Each player was rated about 50 times.

Okay, now the obviously most important question: who was most attractive player?

Actually, to avoid abuse and personal suffering we replaced the names with an ID number. We are only interested in the overall effects, not to analyze a particular player. So we don’t reveal the rating for a specific player.

That is a pity, but understandable. So what was the purpose of your investigation?

First of all, similar behaviour has been found in other situations, but we wanted to see if expert chess players also behaved this way. Studying chess players offers a somewhat different setting, as they are considered to be sophisticated and intelligent. So by studying expert chess players we may obtain answers corresponding to some upper boundary of human behaviour.

What do you mean by “upper boundary”?

One of the most common assumptions in economics is that of full rationality, that is, we assume that people behave in a way that maximizes their profits, given that they know how to do that. However, it is not hard to find cases when this is not the case. Actually, it seems to be quite common. Dealers on the stock market may be one example. Stock market actors and other financial actors are probably more similar to expert chess players than the mean individual of the whole population.

So by studying chess players we may learn how the most rational people behave, right? And what can we learn from the findings?

In earlier studies, it has been observed that men applying for bank loans become more impatient and ask for more money when seeing a beautiful woman. Actually, their demand for money increases with an amount corresponding to a decrease in the interest rate by 25%. If these findings are correct, imagine what could happen at a job interview or wage negotiation between a male recruiter and a female job applicant.

But why do you study chess players? Why not turn directly to those areas you want to analyse?

It is very difficult to obtain adequate data on this kind of behaviour. Most data is based on self-reported behaviour. And if you ask a recruiter or bank employee if he behaves differently depending on who is sitting in the opposite chair, he is quite likely to say no. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t. If you want to study how people behave in reality, one way is to turn to lab experiments. Lab experiments are usually expensive and give quite few observations and since people tend to change their behaviour somewhat when knowing they are being observed, the problem isn’t really solved. A chess game is not that different from a controlled lab experiment, and since the rules are the same all over the world, it is quite easy to compare the results across countries. As we study the behaviour ex-post, the behaviour is not affected by the presence of the researchers.  

How reliable are these results? Couldn’t there be other hidden explanations for your findings?

I guess that there can always be hidden driving factors behind research results. However, one great advantage with the chess data is the existence of the Elo rating. This allows us to account for differences in playing skills. By using powerful statistical approaches we can also make sure that the effects are not driven by age differences, cultural differences, style of play as regards the preferences for aggressive or solid openings, etc. And due to the fact that we can follow most players over several years, it is possible to account for differences that are constant over time. This is a great advantage.

A final question, you talk about men’s behaviour. Don’t the female players change depending on the attractiveness of the opponent.

No, not in this study. And, in general, this kind of behaviour is usually only found for men. Nevertheless, intuitively I doubt that men would bother to behave more aggressively or to take higher risks if it didn’t pay off in some sense. It would be extremely interesting to see if homosexual players react the same way. If the increased aggressiveness is due to sexual arousal then we would see no such reaction from opposite-sex opponents. And if we would find that, for instance, homosexual men play more aggressively against female opponents, then it has probably more to do with social or cultural norms. However, at the moment I feel that it would be a little too much to ask people about the sexual orientation. Perhaps in the future.

We understand that you have prepared a short survey to try to find answers to some of your research questions, right?

Yes, it is a survey for chess players with an Elo of at least 2000, and I hope to receive enough answers to be able to tackle at least some of the questions. It only takes a minute to answer and, as a reward, we offers a $500 prize as a value check at Amazon.com.

Thank you for sharing your research results with us and good luck with your survey.

To answer the survey and participate in the lottery with a
chance to win a US $500 value check at Amazon.com,
click on the yellow banner on the right
.

Links to working papers on chess (in PDF):


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