Is Competition Overrated?

KansasCityUpHighUS culture strongly values competition. Our country is built on a system that relies on it as a self-regulating force. We are taught that it builds character, drives innovation, encourages excellence, and motivates growth and improvement. But, it is also important to understand that serious competition requires an attitude of scarcity and limitation – the belief that resources cannot be shared equally and that there must be winners and losers.

Many of us find a little competition fun or exciting. We’ve been organizing games and contests as far back as there is written history and likely further. Our love of competition is the driver behind viewership on Superbowl Sunday and the reason we join teams and participate in games. Competition can even drive healthy and prosocial behavior – at the office we might compete to see which team can collect the most money for charity. Unfortunately, the research shows this behavior does not tend to continue once the competition is over. While short-term benefits might result from competition, longer term gains are more likely to result from a cooperative approach.

This may be because there a number of hidden costs to competition. Some people seem to thrive on it and are naturally high in this trait. We all know that person who can make almost anything into a game of winning and losing. Hyper-competitiveness is the compulsion to win at all costs and usually hinges on a person’s sense of self-worth. People high in this trait tend to score lower on measures of psychological health. The motivation that springs from competition is largely external, which tends to be less reliable and replaces the more long-lived and potent internal motivations for behavior. In addition, competition can sometimes reward unethical , illegal or otherwise harmful behavior – when winning or losing involves a matter of survival, desperate measures may be taken.

Regardless of what we think of competition, it is part of our daily lives. Can we meet it with more awareness and curiosity, noticing our own competitive thoughts and feelings and how they play out, short and long term, when we act on them? What do you experience when you win and when you lose? What is it like to see others win or lose? Conversely, what do you experience when you choose cooperation instead? What are the results of your cooperative behaviors, for yourself and for others? Through mindfulness of our competitive and cooperative thoughts, feelings, and actions, we can discover for ourselves which is the best approach.

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of other men —above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving. ― Albert Einstein


Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Johnson, DW, Maryuyama, G, Johnson, R. & Nelson, D. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 89(1), 47-62.

Qin, Z., Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1995). Cooperative Versus Competitive Efforts and Problem Solving. Review of Educational Research 65(2), 129-143.

Ryckman, R. M., Thornton, B., Butler, J. C. (1994). Personality correlates of the hypercompetitive attitude scale: Validity tests of Horney’s theory of neurosis. Journal of Personality Assessment. 62: 84–94.

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