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Why We Compete – The Psychology of Competition



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Q. I see myself as kind of a peace-loving hippy with little interest in competing with anyone about anything. Can you explore why most people are so competitive?

A. There are many reasons why human beings compete. One of the most likely is that we may be genetically “hardwired” to do so. For instance, in times of scarcity, we may need to know what will be required of us to survive. One of the easiest ways to determine this is to compete in play or through games with others of our gender, age, weight class etc.  In nature most living creatures compete for;  territory, a niche, resources, goods, a mate, prestige, awards, recognition, group or social status, leadership, and profit.



One of my favorite movies and teaching tools concerning competition is Quest for Fire. This is a brilliant adventure film adaptation of the 1911 Belgian novel by J.H. Rosny. The story  is set in  Paleolithic Europe (80,000 years ago), with its plot surrounding the struggle for control of fire by early humans as they compete with nature, other tribes a lacking of essential skills needed to succeed, which they must accumulate in their struggle to survive and prosper like the film because it is one of the most powerful primal illustrations of how competition occurs naturally between living organisms who are co-existing in the same environment

For example, animals compete over water supplies, food, mates, and other biological resources. Humans usually compete for food and mates, though when these needs are met deep rivalries may also often arise over the pursuit of wealth, power, prestige, and fame.

In life, we soon learn that there will be competition whenever at least two parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared – where one’s gain is the other’s loss. The earliest experience of this in childhood is one child taking another’s toys, or not sharing.

For a developing child competition is expressed in simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe, Checkers, Rock-Paper-Scissors and soon expands into sports, and video games of ever greater complexity.


Early on we begin to think, that competition and cooperation are oppositional but it is much more complex than that. From a positive perspective, competition may serve as a form of recreation or a challenge provided that it is non-hostile. On the negative side, competition can cause injury, and loss to organisms involved, draining valuable resources and energy from them. In the human species competition can be expensive on many levels, not only in lives lost to war, physical injuries, and damaged psychological well-being, but also in the health effects from everyday civilian life caused by work stress, long work hours, abusive working relationships, and poor working conditions, that detract from the enjoyment of life, even as such competition results in financial gain for those at the top of the hierarchy.   Unless we are playing a game where everyone can win we have entered a zero-sum game.

Competitive games and the many strategies applied within them have been studied in several fields, including traditional psychology, family therapy,  sociology, and anthropology. Social psychologists, for instance, study the nature of competition, investigating the natural urge of competition and its circumstances. They also study group dynamics, to detect how competition emerges and what its effects are.  Sociologists, meanwhile, study the effects of competition on society as a whole. In  addition anthropologists study the history and prehistory of competition in various countries and cultures. They also investigate the ways that various forms of competition have manifested in various cultural settings in the past, and how competition has developed over time.

Many philosophers and psychologists have identified a competitive trait in most living organisms which can drive that particular organism’s actions. This trait is viewed as an innately biological and which coexists along with the urge for survival. Competitiveness or the inclination to compete has become synonymous with aggressiveness and ambition in the English language.

More advanced civilizations integrate aggressiveness and competition into their interactions  as a  way to distribute resources and adapt. Many plants, for instance, compete with neighboring ones for sunlight. Stephen Jay Gould the great  American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, as well as other influential researchers, have argued that as one ascends the evolutionary hierarchy, instinctual competitiveness becomes less innate, and more a learned behavior. The same could be said for patterns of co-operation. In humans, at least, both co-operation and competition are considered learned behaviors because the human species can quickly learn to adapt to environmental pressures.

Consequently, if survival requires competitive behaviors, the individual will compete, and if survival requires co-operative behaviors, the individual will co-operate. In the case of humans, therefore, aggressiveness may be an innate characteristic, but a person need not be competitive at the same time. An example of this might be climbing Mount Everest or scaling a cliff. On the other hand, humans seem also to have a nurturing instinct, to protect newborns and the weak. While that does not necessitate cooperative behavior, it does help.

The word “competition” also applies to econometrics. the comparative measure of the ability and performance of a group to sell and produce/supply goods and/or services in a given market. Predicting changes in the competitiveness of business sectors is becoming an integral and explicit step in public policymaking. Within capitalist economic systems, the drive of any enterprises is to maintain and improve their own competitiveness.

Competition can have both beneficial and detrimental effects and there are many academic disciplines that have focused on how and why we compete in order to make sense of interactions  among various species.  One of the first disciplines to explore competition was sociology – the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society as well as the study of social problems. Later on this exploration became an important element of economics and in recent years much important research in the area of competition has been conducted by evolutionary biologists.  Evolutionary biologists view inter-species and intra-species competition as the driving force of adaptation and ultimately of evolution. However, some biologists disagree, citing competition as a driving force only on a small scale, and citing the larger scale drivers of evolution to be abiotic factors (termed “Room to Roam”). Richard Dawkins, (born 26 March 1941) the English  ethologist, evolutionary  biologist,  and   author prefers to think of evolution in terms of competition between single genes, which have the welfare of the organism “in mind” only insofar as that welfare furthers their own selfish drives for replication (termed the “selfish gene”).

In times of abundance, surpluses are irrelevant.  In times of scarcity, it is hard to know what is enough.  Each of us sees the world differently.  Our perceptions control the calculations we make to determine what is “enough.”  They may seem quite reasonable, sensible, and rational, but they are also reinforced emotively, and with a different intention than might ordinarily  seem logical. Understanding this, it makes greater sense to see that it may actually be easier for us to compete than to live a life free of competition.  Some researchers believe that we may also be genetically predisposed to a type of group behavior where it is essential to track the wealth of others and then compare it to our own level of wealth.  Such a practice might serve as a far-reaching means of assuring self-survival in the face of unknown future shifts and changes in the group dynamic, particularly in relation to hierarchical behavior patterns.

Concerning survival, the ability to recognize patterns has been an invaluable tool in the cognitive arsenal of humans, especially in relation to competition.  Strong assessment skills can help you to recognize patterns.

In order to prosper in a competitive environment, we need to have the ability to analyze and anticipate what a competitor is likely to do as well as take into consideration the actions of the other players. Game Thinking and the application of strategic games is an efficient and effective way to do this.  As one applies these skills it becomes easier to look at the different ways to determine a best or dominant strategy. This includes analyzing what happens when we change the game from simultaneous (where everybody acts at the same time) to sequential (where players move sequentially after each other).

Some Social Darwinists embrace the theory that competition also serves as a mechanism for determining the best-suited group; politically, economically and ecologically. What any game thinker understands is that as we mature, we are likely to see that in the real world mixtures of cooperation and competition are the norm.  For the innovative, efficient, effective, productive, creative and collaborative game thinker, competition is seldom required. Optimal strategies to achieve goals in an environment where everyone wins can be learned both intuitively and mathematically through Game theory and other approaches to applied game thinking.

Since the time of Adam Smith the exploration of competition has been a major tenet of market economies, and today it is often associated with business. Most companies compete with at least one other firm over the same group of customers. Also, competition inside a company is usually stimulated by creating improved products and services.

So where does all this competitiveness lead us? As games become more complex and competition more sophisticated, new classes, categories, strategies, and systems develop to maximize the potential of each player. Some of these games become so complex that scientists and statisticians have had to develop computer models and programs to explore millions of potential interactions and strategies among thousands of players. The mathematical approach to applying basic trial and error skills in these game spaces are called “meta-heuristic algorithms*”. This is a fancy way of saying that a decision maker is using basic math applied through a specialized computer program that can plow through massive amounts of data in a trial and error fashion.

It is unlikely that you will ever need meta-heuristic algorithms to solve one of your personal problems.  Just as you can drive a car, or fly on a plane without knowing the technical elements of how either functions, one can solve many problems without needing any more than the basics we have discussed in this chapter. However, for any situation that is complex one can always find a mathematician or statistician to explore the next level of problem-solving and applied game thinking.

Game playing may be something we do as a diversion, for entertainment amusement, exercise, as a distraction, for recreation, as a sport, or as an activity to pass time but ultimately game thinking can make the difference in the quality of life we get to experience on every level.

In psychology and ethology  play is includes a wide range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated  activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment.  Play is commonly associated with children and juvenile-level activities but occurs at any life stage, and among other higher-functioning animals as well, most notably mammals.

Many prominent researchers in the field of psychology, including Melanie KleinJean Piaget,  William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Lev Vygotsky  have viewed play as confined to the human species, believing play was important for human development and using different research methods to prove their theories.

Play is often interpreted as frivolous; yet the player can be intently focused on their objective (end-game), particularly when play is structured and goal-oriented, as in a game. Accordingly, play can range from relaxed, free-spirited and spontaneous through frivolous to planned or even compulsive.  Play is not just a pastime activity; it has the potential to serve as an important tool in numerous aspects of daily life for adolescents, adults, and cognitively advanced non-human species (such as primates). Not only does play promote and aid in physical development (such as hand–eye coordination), but it also aids in cognitive development and social skills, and acts as a stepping stone to game thinking. Remember:

  1. As children we soon learn that in some games everyone wins but in other games – competitive games – some people get what they need and more (the winners) and some people don’t (the losers).
  2. We also learn that in order to win these win/lose games certain factors come into play including skill, creativity, innovation, strength, and luck.
  3. In time all these elements begin to define how we live our lives day to day.





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Lewis Harrison is a practical philosopher, mentor, and peak performance coach.


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