Guided by this model, individuals and institutions pursue their interests through contests in which the one with the most power, resources or influence “wins”. In this way, systems based on competition tend to generate inequalities and injustices, as they generally tend to benefit those who are already winning, while those in need of more support to develop a minimum of their human potential are left further and further behind. This ultimately results in the growing chasm between wealth and poverty in the world, both between states and within each country.
In today’s economic system, the more money one has, the easier it is to earn more, while the fewer resources one has, the harder it is to escape from poverty. The result is the present situation, in which less than 15% of humanity controls over 85% of the world’s resources. These extremes of wealth and poverty are not only fundamentally immoral but also a cause of crime, terrorism and economic instability.
Despite the serious problems caused by competition, there remains a belief that it is inevitable – an essential feature of human life. After all, where has any society been found without competition? However, by the same token one could ask in what culture cooperation does not exist. In fact, cooperation has prevailed and enabled social cohesion and economic progress in even the most adversarial societies. Anthropologists show that historically most cultures in the world have promoted cooperation and discouraged competition. The prevalence of competition or cooperation in a given culture depends, not on anything inherent in humanity, but rather on the education, socialization and acculturation of its members.1
One common argument in defense of competition as an organizational principle of society is that it supposedly increases performance. The fact is, however, that it only motivates the upper 5%, while discouraging the other 95% who have little chance of “winning”. Numerous studies have shown that the most productive way to work is cooperating in teams, followed by independent work, and the least productive is competing against others. This is due in part to the stress involved in seeking to beat someone else, which wastes energy and distracts from the effort to improve.
People often mistakenly associate competition with excellence. However, many studies have shown that quality is best promoted using “intrinsic" motivators (desire to serve, love of excellence), which are harmed by "extrinsic" motivators (money, awards, prestige). Competition, being an extrinsic motivator (the reward is winning), has a limited effect and ends up damaging intrinsic motivation. In contrast, cooperation produces several intrinsic motivators, including the enjoyment of shared success, the satisfaction of cultivating positive relationships with others, and the feeling of responsibility towards the other members of an interdependent team. Therefore, true excellence is promoted through cooperation and impaired by competition.
Another argument that is frequently used by advocates of competition is that it is more enjoyable, but this begs the question “more enjoyable than what?” If the answer is that it is more fun than not doing anything, then maybe so. If it is more recreational than purely game-like activities, played solely for delight of doing so, with neither rules nor opponents, then that is a matter of individual taste. However, if the response is that it is more pleasurable than teamwork and cooperative games, then there is research that suggests the contrary.
For example, most of those surveyed described cooperative sports as more pleasant and satisfying than competitive sports, since the former offer all of the advantages of the latter and more, but none of the disadvantages. They have rules that demand discipline, provide the same level of exercise and physical/mental effort without the negative stress or anxiety, are equally engrossing without the pressure to defeat someone else. They promote teamwork and socialization with twice as many people (both teams), and make it possible for all participants to enjoy the taste of victory instead of only allowing some of them to win. In addition, they promote a culture of cooperation, which over time tends to spread to other facets of life, such as the work environment.
Finally, there are some who defend competition with the idea that it forms character, understood as a healthy psychological state characterized by self-confidence and self-esteem, a stable, mature personality, and the development of certain human virtues. However, repeated scientific studies have shown that competition works against self-esteem, emotional stability and even ethical behavior. Attempts to beat others do not strengthen self-confidence, but rather weakens it in a vicious, addictive circle, as shown in the graph. People tend to equate the fact of losing with being a loser, which undermines their positive self-evaluation, deepens their negative self-criticism, and predisposes them to expect and anticipate further failure.
These attitudes in turn can lead to envy and vengeance, which corrodes their personality and social relations, and makes competitors embittered, ill humored, disagreeable, and unfriendly. Consequently, such people often succumb to the temptation to use unethical strategies to compete, such as lying, deceiving, cheating, undermining, and backstabbing others in the attempt to beat them.
People who are psychologically stable and self-assured do not need to compete in order to prove themselves and show their worth to others. Rather, having to compete in order to be successful tends to corrode their sense of emotional wellbeing. Cooperation, on the other hand, helps to recover mental health and eliminates the need for fraud in order to get ahead. Furthermore, it develops essential social skills such as sharing, tolerance for and appreciation of differences, and teamwork, which prepare people to live with others in a family or work environment.
Given the bankruptcy of competition as a social norm, numerous alternative proposals have been put forward based on “win-win” relationships in which each person’s achievements do not undermine possibilities of others, but rather increases their chances of success. These systems include innovative economic and political approaches, more horizontal forms of leadership, teamwork, cooperative learning, cooperative games, religious ecumenism, and many more. By studying and implementing them, we will learn to make both our interpersonal relations and the social structures in which we participate more cooperative.
1. The following is taken largely from the book “No Contest – The Case against Competition. Why we Lose in our Race to Win” by Alfie Kohn. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.