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The effect of losing a competition: the role of gender, unfairness and feedback

Last registered on May 21, 2021


Trial Information

General Information

The effect of losing a competition: the role of gender, unfairness and feedback
Initial registration date
May 20, 2021

Initial registration date is when the trial was registered.

It corresponds to when the registration was submitted to the Registry to be reviewed for publication.

First published
May 21, 2021, 9:33 AM EDT

First published corresponds to when the trial was first made public on the Registry after being reviewed.



Primary Investigator

Lund University

Other Primary Investigator(s)

PI Affiliation
ETH Zurich and DIW Berlin
PI Affiliation
Humboldt University of Berilin
PI Affiliation
University of Sydney

Additional Trial Information

In development
Start date
End date
Secondary IDs
Women are underrepresented at every level of the corporate ladder. A growing and important experimental literature suggests that women are both more likely to avoid competition and drop out of competitive environments after experiencing disappointment than men. These laboratory measures seem also to predict career choices and, hence, partly explain the gender gap. We study the role of perceived unfairness in explaining gender differences in willingness to compete again in response to losing a competition. We ask whether men and women differ in how they respond to losing or winning a competition and whether these differences increase or decrease in presence of unfair conditions. Moreover, we aim to understand which women and men drive the gender gap. For this purpose, we run a post-experiment survey to elicit a large number of socio-economic characteristics and personality traits. We estimate heterogeneous treatment effects using machine learning methods that allow to control for a large number of covariates.
External Link(s)

Registration Citation

Pfeifer, Gregor et al. 2021. "The effect of losing a competition: the role of gender, unfairness and feedback." AEA RCT Registry. May 21.
Experimental Details


Intervention Start Date
Intervention End Date

Primary Outcomes

Primary Outcomes (end points)
1) Gender gap in tournament entry, within a given treatment and also across treatments, both for the full sample and for round-2 losers only.

2) Beliefs about own performances

3) Variation in gender gap within treatments with observables characteristics

Primary Outcomes (explanation)

Secondary Outcomes

Secondary Outcomes (end points)
1) Gender gap in tournament entry, within a given treatment and also across treatments for round-2 winners only.

Secondary Outcomes (explanation)

Experimental Design

Experimental Design
We conduct an online experiment on Prolific in which participants work on a real effort task for three rounds. In the first round they receive piece rate pay, in the second they take part in a two-person tournament and in the third round they choose between tournament and piece rate pay. Prior to making their tournament entry decision in round 3, participants receive feedback whether or not they won the previous round's tournament. We vary whether the tournament in round 2 is fair (the best performer wins) or unfair (the best performer might lose) and, for unfair tournaments, vary whether participants find out whether they won or lost fairly or unfairly. We also elicit performance beliefs prior to the tournament entry decision, and collect socio-economic characteristics and personality traits in a final questionnaire.
Experimental Design Details
In our experiment participants are randomly assigned to one of three treatments. Each treatment consists of three effort tasks and concludes with a questionnaire. Treatments are explained in detail below.

Neutral Treatment:
Each player plays three main tasks of 90 seconds each. Only one randomly chosen task will be payoff-relevant. In task 1, participants perform a real effort task in which they have to count the number of zeros (0) in ten tables consisting of zeros (0) and ones (1) (Apicella et al., 2017). They are paid according to a piece rate that pays 0.15 pounds per table they solve correctly. In task 2 participants work on the same task but are paid according to a tournament rate that pays 0.30 pounds if the participant’s score (which is the number of tables they solve correctly) exceeds the score of another randomly selected player who has already played the task. Before task 3 is played, we ask players to consider their performance in task 2 and guess their rank compared to other 100 participants in task 2. We call this task the ”Guessing task”. This task is incentivized. We pay a base payment of 0.50 pounds, with a penalty of 0.02 pounds times the absolute difference between the true rank and the stated (guessed) rank. Subsequently participants are given a neutral feedback, i.e., “you won/lost in the tournament”. In task 3, participants work on the same task but before that, they can choose between the piece rate and tournament payment. If the latter is chosen, participants’ scores are matched with the scores of other players who already played the task (different from the opponent in task 2). This guarantees that participants’ decisions in task 3 do not impose an externality on earnings of others.

Unfair Treatment
It is analogous to the “Neutral Treatment” except that before completing task 2, participants are told that in 50% of the cases the winner of the tournament will be the one with the higher score (i.e.: the actual winner) while in the remaining 50% of the cases the winner will be randomly chosen. This means that there is a 25% chance that the player with the highest score will lose undeservedly. Feedback is the same as in the neutral treatment. Since no feedback is given about which of the two above-described scenarios has occurred, participants do not know whether they won/lost deservedly or undeservedly. The tournament in task 3 (if chosen) will be a fair (neutral) tournament in order to both keep the treatments as similar as possible and to avoid that preferences for fair (neutral) competitive environment could play a role in task 3’s decision. This treatment reproduces the features of many real world situations where individuals do not always know whether they won/lost because someone had an unfair advantage or not.

Unfair Feedback Treatment
It is analogous to the “Unfair Treatment” except that players are now told whether they won/lost deservedly or undeservedly the tournament in Task 2. Participants also receive feedback about their true rank in the “Guessing task”.

The experiment ends with a questionnaire asking questions about willingness to take risk, about whether participants think that men or women are better in the counting zero task, socio-economic variables, family background, athletic/sport experience, as well as perception of unfairness and competitive attitudes.
Randomization Method
Randomization done by Prolific online platform's algorithm
Randomization Unit
Was the treatment clustered?

Experiment Characteristics

Sample size: planned number of clusters
Between 1200 and 1800 participants.
Sample size: planned number of observations
Our target sample size is between 1200 and 1800 participants.
Sample size (or number of clusters) by treatment arms
400-600 participants in each of the three treatments, spread evenly across both genders.
Minimum detectable effect size for main outcomes (accounting for sample design and clustering)
see Analysis plan
Supporting Documents and Materials


Document Name
Ethics committee approval
Document Type
Document Description
Ethics committee approval
Ethics committee approval

MD5: 39d0042186df6e44713c23281c7cb6ea

SHA1: df0bebf6a0b20f53eb02609f21a2808ceeb450fe

Uploaded At: May 20, 2021


Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)

IRB Name
WZB Ethics Committee
IRB Approval Date
IRB Approval Number
Analysis Plan

Analysis Plan Documents

Pre analysis plan

MD5: dfbdcf4e159619ca9eb1c01113853ae6

SHA1: bf620e7ab8e5a7fb0f7574a39d5f6022e947eaa3

Uploaded At: May 20, 2021


Post Trial Information

Study Withdrawal

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Request Information


Is the intervention completed?
Intervention Completion Date
June 30, 2021, 12:00 +00:00
Data Collection Complete
Data Collection Completion Date
June 30, 2021, 12:00 +00:00
Final Sample Size: Number of Clusters (Unit of Randomization)
Was attrition correlated with treatment status?
Final Sample Size: Total Number of Observations
Final Sample Size (or Number of Clusters) by Treatment Arms
716 in the Neutral treatment, 684 in the Unfair treatment, 686 in the Feedback treatment
Data Publication

Data Publication

Is public data available?

Program Files

Program Files
Reports, Papers & Other Materials

Relevant Paper(s)

How do men and women differ in their persistence after experiencing failure in a competitive environment? We tackle this question by combining a large online experiment (N=2,086) with machine learning. We find that when losing is unequivocally due to merit, both men and women exhibit a significant decrease in subsequent tournament entry. However, when the prior tournament is unfair, i.e., a loss is no longer necessarily based on merit, women are more discouraged than men. These results suggest that transparent meritocratic criteria may play a key role in preventing women from falling behind after experiencing a loss.
July 2023 IZA DP No. 16324: Does Unfairness Hurt Women? The Effects of Losing Unfair Competitions Stefano Piasenti, Marica Valente, Roel van Veldhuizen, Gregor Pfeifer

Reports & Other Materials