I’ve been suspicious of competitiveness since I played childhood sports, when I found myself wanting more to connect with other kids than to vanquish them. As a resident of the hypercompetitive Washington, D.C., area, where the first thing people ask is, “What do you do?” and teenagers work themselves into states of panic about college acceptance, I’ve often thought about the legions of individuals who might never become number one in their field or get into their top school and would, by their own definition, be left wanting.
It makes me wonder: Is competition a good thing? Are competitive people happy? And is being competitive good for individuals or, for that matter, society? With top competitive athletes such as gymnastics’ Simone Biles, tennis’s Naomi Osaka and football’s Richard Sherman talking openly about making their mental health their top priority: with the Summer and Winter Olympic Games barely six months apart; and with the pandemic complicating many people’s plans for career or educational advancement, it seemed like a good time to reach out to some experts to get their opinions on the issue.
“Competitiveness isn’t inherently good or bad,” says Jenny Crocker, the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology at Ohio State University. “It can be motivating, encourage people to push themselves, expand their capacities and capabilities, and perform at a high level. Where it’s bad is where we compete in ways that are bad for other people.” As an example, Crocker cites a desire to beat others in the race, "which is fine as long as you’re not elbowing someone into a ditch,” to accomplish your goal. “If winning the competition becomes the ultimate goal you may be willing to sacrifice things along the way that could be very bad.”
In fact, a study published in 2011 in the journal Psychology found that hypercompetitive individuals — those who have a need to win at all cost — were more impatient and irritable than their less-competitive counterparts and had higher self-reported health problems, including heart disease. This built on prior research, including a 1994 study that found hypercompetitive people to be highly narcissistic and to have lower self-esteem and higher rates of anxiety and depression than others. That research painted hypercompetitive people as in need of constant validation, which they seek through a “ceaseless round of social activities”—a performance load that inevitably causes them to fall short of their goals and “feel perpetually dissatisfied.”
“One of the dangers of a competitive personality is that even non-competitiveness situations can become competitive, and that ruins your hedonic experience,” or enjoyment of the moment, says Stephen Garcia, professor of management at the University of California, Davis. “Some people manufacture this angst,” he adds, for example by allowing themselves to be bothered by the fact that the other person in a hotel elevator is staying on a higher floor than they are.
More broadly, Crocker says people are social animals who often operate under two major motivations: Ecosystem motivations, which recognize groups as interconnected sets of individuals whose behavior affects the health and wellbeing of others in the group. And what she calls “egosystem motivation,” in which people view others as either a means or an obstacle to an end.
“If you’re trying to use another person as a tool for getting a job or a romantic relationship or some other gain, that leads to a feeling of competitiveness with other people,” Crocker says. “When you’re trying to manage other people’s impressions of you, you’re competing with them over the image of you. And when other people are obstacles to your ends—for example, when I want the prize, the job, or whatever—we don’t have shared goals. Everyone wants to be the smartest person in the room and as a result they all feel competitive, and predominantly fearful, anxious, lonely, and isolated.”
Crocker co-authored a study published in 2012 in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology that found that when people try to manage the impressions others have of them, “they create a cascade of unintended negative consequences for both themselves and others. In contrast, when people try to contribute to the well-being of other people, they create a cascade of positive consequences for both themselves and others.”
Examples of egosystem management, she says, include pointing out someone else’s error in a conversation to make oneself look better. “Or, you withhold information from people you work with so you can be the one who solves the problem,” she says. “That elicits competitiveness in other people and is bad for learning, psychological wellbeing, and for growth,” because it doesn’t create a supportive environments.
Some experts believe competitiveness in almost any form is bad. “The evidence shows that the ideal amount of competition in any environment—for mental health, quality of relationships, interest in what we're doing, and quality of performance—is none at all,” says Alfie Kohn, author of “No Contest: The Case Against Competition.”
“When that's not possible, the goal should be to minimize it. The ideal arrangement is cooperation, where my success depends on your success. The second-best arrangement is goal independence, where my success is unaffected by your success. The worst arrangement is competition, where my success requires your failure.”
Kohn says that people too often confuse success (doing well) with winning (doing better than others). “According to scores of studies, the more you're led to focus on triumphing over others, the less well you'll end up doing on most tasks, particularly over the long haul,” he says. Kohn adds that he hasn’t seen a single valid study showing that humans are naturally competitive with each other. In fact, he says, it’s cooperation—not competition—that has fueled almost every societal advance in history.
On a personal level, we should all engage in activities because we find them enjoyable and valuable in their own right, Kohn says. He contrasts such intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation—"doing something to get a reward or, worse, an award, which involves beating someone else. Extrinsic motivators tend to undermine intrinsic motivation.”
He cites a 2002 study of adults in 42 countries, published in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, that found that people motivated by bettering themselves had higher job satisfaction, subjective wellbeing and overall satisfaction with their lives compared to those who were primarily motivating by outperforming others. A second study by the same authors and published in the same journal found that populaces are least happy when men and women are highly competitive.
Pippa Grange, a British sports psychologist and author of “Fear Less: Face Not-Good-Enough to Replace Your Doubts, Achieve Your Goals, and Unlock Your Success,” says, “We have narrowed our understanding of competition too far toward dominance, conquest, better-than-the-other-guy. Each of these goals serves the ego alone, invites a great deal of fear of not being good enough, and depletes the richness of the true competitive journey, which is a journey to completeness.”
Grange says she has worked with many people, including professional soccer players in Europe, who “found emptiness … when the objective was to separate themselves from others and the focus was only on outcomes.” Such “winning shallow” breeds insecurity, envy, bitterness and the fear of losing what has been gained, she says.
A healthier perspective, Grange says, is to recognize “that competition is necessarily about ‘we', not ‘I.' It always involves other people. It’s what I call ‘winning deep.’ There is no less striving or passion, it’s just done together; in common.”
If you struggle to tame your competitive nature, Grange offers these tips:
- Focus on a goal that is about self-mastery rather than one about beating others.
- If the emotions that accompany your competitiveness have any fear or negativity, try to release the critical voice. Ask: What is the best feeling I can have for this task without it involving dominating or conquering anyone else?
- Watch the language you use around competition. Aim for striving, passion, possibility and “us,” and turn away from fear, victory, glory and “me.”
- Consider the difference between your outcome goals and your purpose. The metaphorical scoreboard is an outcome. Your purpose is why you do it, and how it enriches you and others.
- Practice gratitude. Thank—silently or otherwise—each person who helped positively shape your capabilities. “Perhaps someone will be thanking you, too,” she says.
Competitiveness will no doubt share center stage at the Winter Olympics, and throughout our culture for a long time to come. But that doesn’t mean we can’t examine it and, when needed, dial it back for the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us.
John Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Md. His website is johnbriley.com.
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