Posted by: bridget | 20 February 2007

Conflating the Physical and the Psychological

Slate has a controversial article, mis-titled, “Women are Chokers.” A (male, surprised?) scientist studied elite tennis players at the French Open and determined that women make more errors when under pressure than men make.

Supposedly, there is no correlation to the physical stresses at the end of a match (women and men play matches of the same length and on courts of the same size), but that is doubtful. Basic sexual dimorphism: women are smaller than men and fatigue more easily. It is quite a stretch to determine that women make errors in tennis because of the mental pressure and not because of exhaustion. (The dichotomy between women and men starts to reverse after extremely long periods of exertion – i.e. ultramarathons – where women start to perform better because their bodies are better at converting fat into energy.) Note that women supposedly make more errors even in low-stress situations, and it becomes clear that the “choke” theory doesn’t hold water. Dr. Paserman chose tennis, for some reason – but not golf, where the courses are adjusted for physical differences.

Another researcher determined that both men and women improve their mental performance (measured by ability to solve puzzles) when competing against their own gender, but women do not improve their performance when competing against men. So it is not that women don’t like competition, but, as proven by other researchers, women’s performance suffers in the face of discrimination.



  1. I wonder why people take the time to study this. What about reading for the blind, or cancer research… isn’t that much worthy a cause? Oh I get it…Cancer Research requires a brain…a bigger brain :-).


  2. (Laughing) Yeah, I was wondering the same thing. Instead of studying the “science” of why women/blacks/Baptists don’t perform as well as men/whites/Episcopalians, why not try to develop a society that extracts the full value of intellect and ambition from each person? Or, as you said, study cancer.

    If you read the rebuttal on the Slate site, you’ll see that the guy has zero idea of how to do science in the first place. His stats are not outside the margin of error and don’t prove what he says that they prove. Many “social scientists” are in that realm due to inability to do real science – and make themselves feel better by doing research that shows their innate superiourity. Ugh!

  3. Hi Bridget,

    I wonder just what this fellow’s motivation was to generate not only shakey results, but what he certainly knew would be a slap at women in general. Who thought paying for this was a good idea?

    Implying that women, simply on that distinction, fail to rise to the highest levels of performance, seems a useless point to make. Choking is universal. Either you overcome your fear, self doubt and conditions and succeed, or you don’t. Noting increased error, even with world class athletes, amounts to counting missteps with no account for the cause of the mishap. In sports, often poor results come from pushing yourself beyond capacity, trying to do too much, overthinking the task or even injury.

    Assuming an attempt was made to consider extenuating circumstances, athletics doesn’t lend itself to amassing accurate distinctions between men and women. Tennis seems a good choice to work up percentages for error, but doesn’t begin to factor in the competitive aspects, an individual’s experience or physical condition at the time of the event.

    What dummy would want to try to prove gender superiority anyway? Each of us have strengths and weaknesses regardless of sex. This continual war of the sexes is annoying for me, at best.


  4. Hi Hank,

    As usual, you say eloquently that which I fumble to articulate.

    “Choking is universal.” Any baseball fan who saw the 2004 ALCS knows that for a fact – and aren’t the Yankees all men? ;)

    Tennis seems a particularly bad sport to pick – after all, physical limits become very important at close parts of the match. Coordination – or lack thereof – will result in decreased performance. Why not golf (the sport my little brother says he likes because it doesn’t involve sweating)?

    “What dummy would want to try to prove gender superiority anyway?” Well, Hank, my answer to that involves snarky comments about “compensating” that aren’t really appropriate for my family-oriented blog. ;)

    Thanks for stopping by. :)

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