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The Winner Takes It All: Why We’re Competitive

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I threw a buzzer at my roommate’s head. He was beating me at what was supposed to be a “friendly” game of Taboo. My old lacrosse coach would have been mortified at my bad sportsmanship. The odd thing is, I don’t consider myself a competitive person. I played team sports growing up, but always chose defensive positions because they felt less aggressive. I ran track one year to get out of gym, but faked sick before every meet. Competition in the workplace makes me uneasy, which is partially why I enjoy working for myself. I would never fight over a guy. But when it comes to board games, it’s a cage match to the death.


Competition Is in Our Blood
We’re all hardwired to compete. Evolutionarily speaking, that’s why we’re here—because we’ve competed over resources and mates, and we’ve won. At least our genes have. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, kill or be killed, survival of the fittest, the fight in “fight or flight.”


But the fact that you have to run faster than the person on the treadmill next to you is not all inborn. As is becoming increasingly clear in the nature-nurture debate, most personality traits are an organic product of both genetic inheritance and learned behavior. Perhaps our genes are telling us to earn more and produce faster, but competitiveness is also instilled by our individual upbringings and society as a whole.


In Western cultures, it’s widely accepted that men are more competitive than women—not that men are better competitors, but that they’ll choose to compete more readily than women. The theory has even been used as an argument for the wage gap between the sexes. Walk into a sports bar on any Monday night during football season, and it’s easy to see why this belief persists.


However, a recent study of competitiveness in patriarchal and matrilineal societies suggests the trait might not be as connected to gender as once believed. In their experiment, scientists found that men from the patriarchal Maasai tribe of Tanzania did indeed opt to compete more often than women. But the opposite was true in the female-dominated matrilineal Khasi society. The Khasi women were even slightly more competitive than the Maasai men. Other than offering a reason for women to shout “Booya!” in men’s faces, the study is significant in that it strongly suggests competitiveness is learned. Women compete less in Western society because that’s what we’re taught to do.


How We Compete
There are myriad ways we choose to, or instinctually, compete every day—at the gym, at work, at home, for a space in the parking lot of the grocery store—with any number of “opponents” in our competition. We compete against others—with coworkers to impress our boss, or with other women for the attention of a man. We compete against ourselves—for example, at the gym when we try to do more reps than we could last week. We also compete against our environment, or external factors. When you stake a fence around your rose bushes, you are competing with the deer who wants to nibble your American Beauties. Sometimes we compete against all three, as anyone who’s ever played golf knows.


We often think of competition as a win-lose situation. We compete at the expense of our opponent. Winner takes all. Economists would call this “destructive” competition. But we can also compete constructively. It may sound counterintuitive, but some competitions have a win-win result. This is what economist Adam Smith was getting at in his theory of “the invisible hand” of free markets in his 1776 tome, The Wealth of Nations. Ultimately, competition drives markets, societies, sports, and even individuals forward.


Competition Can Be Healthy …
Competition is healthy when it’s an incentive for improvement. We see this in business all the time. Competition for customers creates healthier, more efficient, more responsive, and more innovative companies. In evolution, competition for resources creates stronger, more robust, and smarter species.


Another interesting example has been examined in baseball. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wondered why batting averages had not improved, but actually declined, over the years. There was no doubt players were getting better, but statistically, no one could hit a .400 anymore. Accounting for variables like rules and equipment changes, Gould discovered that the gap between the best players and the average players was closing. Everyone, including pitchers, was getting better, incorporating the methods of the best who came before them. In other words, when we all work harder to compete with the natural champion, we all get better.


… And Competition Can Be Unhealthy
There is such a thing as being too competitive. (John McEnroe, we’re talking to you.) Technically speaking, competition is negative when the resources or energy expended stand little chance of being recouped due to the extreme intensity of the competition. We see this in uber-competitive vocational fields like acting, writing, and modeling. Competition for the few opportunities there is so fierce that most competitors will lose. They’ll never earn back the money or time spent on training or, say, a boob job.


When winning comes at all costs, it’s called hypercompetitiveness. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney first theorized hypercompetitiveness as a form of neurosis in 1937 and linked the trait to self-worth. Today we see it played out by professional athletes who run their bodies into the ground in the name of the game, or in girls or boys who suffer from eating disorders.


The repercussions of hypercompetitiveness are not only economic or emotional, but also social. Hypercompetitiveness can be interpreted by others as aggression or uncooperativeness, resulting in a loss in trust. Sometimes there are reputational benefits to “taking one for the team.” By opting out of competition in the short run, you may benefit in the long. Roughly speaking, you lose the battle to win the war.


The next time your inner Bobby Knight urges you to “go, fight, win,” consider what you stand to win and lose. In retrospect, playing a game of Taboo with me was probably a lose-lose situation for my roommate. I lost my cool, and he lost the confidence that his roommate is not a lunatic. I like to tell him he’s just lucky we weren’t playing Trivial Pursuit. Those little pie pieces are sharper than they look. Trust me.

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