Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Opt-out choice framing attenuates gender differences in the decision to compete in the laboratory and in the field

J. C. He, S. K. Kang, N. Lacetera
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 
Oct 2021, 118 (42) e2108337118


Research shows that women are less likely to enter competitions than men. This disparity may translate into a gender imbalance in holding leadership positions or ascending in organizations. We provide both laboratory and field experimental evidence that this difference can be attenuated with a default nudge—changing the choice to enter a competitive task from a default in which applicants must actively choose to compete to a default in which applicants are automatically enrolled in competition but can choose to opt out. Changing the default affects the perception of prevailing social norms about gender and competition as well as perceptions of the performance or ability threshold at which to apply. We do not find associated negative effects for performance or wellbeing. These results suggest that organizations could make use of opt-out promotion schemes to reduce the gender gap in competition and support the ascension of women to leadership positions.


How can we close the gender gap in high-level positions in organizations? Interventions such as unconscious bias training or the “lean in” approach have been largely ineffective. This article suggests, and experimentally tests, a “nudge” intervention, altering the choice architecture around the decision to apply for top positions from an “opt in” to an “opt out” default. Evidence from the laboratory and the field shows that a choice architecture in which applicants must opt out from competition reduces gender differences in competition. Opt-out framing thus seems to remove some of the bias inherent in current promotion systems, which favor those who are overconfident or like to compete. Importantly, we show that such an intervention is feasible and effective in the field.

From the Discussion

A practical implication of our studies is that organizations could attenuate the gender gap in competitions by moving from a default, in which applicants must opt in to apply, to a default whereby those who pass a performance and qualification threshold are automatically considered but can choose to opt out. Examples include promotions in organizations, participation into start-up pitch competitions, and innovation or creativity contests. Future work could examine similar interventions that circumvent the self-nomination aspect of opt-in schemes for competitive selection processes. For instance, rather than self-nomination, peer-nomination could attenuate the gender gap. The results of Study 2 also suggest that manipulating or nudging social norms could result in a similar effect.