More On the Endowment Effect and Athletic Ability

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the recent ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the final appeals court for global sports, that Dutee Chand, a female sprinter, may now may compete in women's track and field despite her high level of naturally occurring testosterone.  She need not, in other words, undergo surgery or medical interventions to lower her testosterone levels as a prerequisite to qualifying as a female athlete for purposes of competition.  In my column, I discuss some of the potential questions that this ruling raises, including the status of transgender women who might be characterized as falling into a different category from women born female and naturally producing testosterone.

In the course of analyzing the potential difference between cis-gender and transgender female athletes with high levels of testosterone, I noted that people may rely on a moral extrapolation from the "endowment effect" (the tendency to place greater value on something that we already own than on something that we have yet to own) to treat those who have been female their entire lives as more entitled to compete as women than those who have been female for a shorter time (relative to their birth).  In this column, I want to make a more general observation about the endowment effect and athletic competition.

As noted in my column, it is an effort to be fair to women that accounts for having separate "male" and "female" sports competition in the first place.  At the highest levels of competition (and, in truth, at most levels of competition), men are born with athletic advantages over women.  Men are typically faster, stronger, and larger than women as a secondary sex characteristic, and some of these differences might be explicable by reference to hormonal differences.

What we sometimes forget, however, in thinking about athletic competition, are the vast distinctions between different individuals within a gender (and within any set range of hormone levels).  No matter how hard the average individual works out and trains at basketball, for example, he or she will likely never become another Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.  This is largely due to the fact that one's ceiling of achievement, if not set in stone, is at least related to one's innate abilities.  Those innate abilities, moreover, are features of more than one's sex or hormone levels.  Yet apart from taking into account disabilities (and providing for separate competitions for the disabled, including the "Special Olympics"), we do not create separate competitions for every person who has less inborn talent than other people competing in athletics.

And the disparities in talent go beyond pure athletic capacity.  The fact that you might be motivated to do a hundred sit-ups every other day, while I might be motivated to do exactly zero sit-ups a year may reflect differences in our respective constitutions at birth.  Some people, all things held constant, have more energy and greater drive to achieve than other people do.  Yet again, we do nothing to ensure that people with low achievement drive compete only against other people with low achievement drive. The people who win athletic competitions are typically born with greater talent and greater drive to work at and perfect their skills than are the people who will never even qualify to compete.

Rather than call this unfair, however, our tendency is to give people credit for the qualities with which they were born, and this is true not only for athletic prowess but for intellectual firepower as well.  How often do we praise those who effortlessly grasp complex concepts and who show tremendous skill before they have even dedicated themselves to practicing and improving their craft? To say that someone is a "born athlete" or a "born scholar" is to compliment the person rather than to suggest that his or her advantages are unfair or unearned.  Indeed, even beauty seems to work this way, with people who look fantastic due to cosmetic surgery described derogatorily as having had "work done," while people born with stunning beauty are credited with being "naturally beautiful."

These observations suggest to me that we routinely reward those of us who are naturally endowed with great abilities, in whatever sphere of achievement, with praise for having been lucky enough to have been endowed in this fashion.  In this way, we compound the unfairness of uneven endowments with a willingness to effectively blame (the flip-side of crediting) those who lack these endowments by denying them entry into the halls of the "gifted and talented," itself a category that offers praise and reward for people born with more.

Women who have more naturally occurring testosterone are thus, to a great extent, right to complain when they are excluded from athletic competition for reasons of "fairness."  They were lucky (or unlucky, depending on how one feels about having much more of the opposite sex hormone than individuals of one's sex ordinarily do), and they might reasonably ask why, in a world generally prepared to reward those who benefit from luck, would people suddenly become conscious of "fairness" when it is they who are the ones benefitting from the unequal distribution of talent at birth.