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Why are Humans so Competitive?

Increasing Self-Awareness through Story-telling, Myths, Game Theory, and Personal Growth



Lewis is the Story-Telling, Game Theorist, Troubleshooter, and Common Sense Problem-Solver


Helping people to create better lives through efficiency, effectiveness, precision, self-awareness, Eastern Wisdom and game-based strategies



Q. It seems that many of the problems of the world are a result of the need many people have to compete. Why are humans so competitive?

A. It is my belief that excluding issues of faith, authentic spirituality, and the expression of love there is little in life that does not involve individuals strategizing in order to benefit in some way from human interactions and from specific circumstances.

It can be said that when we switch from ordinary thinking to game-based thinking we are in a sense creating a new game-based reality.  We soon recognize that it is important to explore and understand various competitive behaviors and examine how to use them to improve the quality of our lives.

Competition is an act that is motivated by the desire to win.  In its least productive form and among common and ordinary thinkers most competition is seen in adversarial terms.

In spite of what was discussed in the previous chapter one may inquire, …”is it really necessary to compete?  Wouldn’t a person who thinks in visionary terms transcend this need?”


I do not have a definitive answer to this question.  Maybe we are hard-wired to compete. Maybe it is something we are genetically inclined to do. It is not an exaggeration to state that when faced with more than one choice, all living creatures act in ways in which they perceive and/or believe that their best interests will be served.  If elements in Darwin’s concepts concerning natural selection are correct, then it can be fairly stated that we are inclined to make status and influence-based choices as a means to reproductive success.  There may be something in us that says, “Having above-average status, income, influence, and power will increase the odds that we will attract a more desirable mate and help our children and those in our primary group (tribe) to have a comparative advantage in relation to their peers.”  Once we earn more and possess more than we need to survive, all wealth becomes comparative.

One of the greatest benefits of knowing of, and embracing game-based thinking is that as we prosper in life and encounter adversarial relationships we can learn advanced skill sets. These might include competitor analysis and other tools to help us to strategize. We begin to ask ourselves “what is the strategy of our adversary?” and look at the different ways to determine a best or dominant response to it. In this way we can anticipate and take into consideration the actions of the other players. Often we will need to analyze what happens when we change the game from simultaneous (where everybody acts at the same time) to sequential (where players move alternately after each other’s moves).

It is not unfair to state that humans are competitive as an expression of self-interest. So much so that at times these status-driven choices may appear to be illogical, irrational, nonsensical and just plain wrong to others.  Nevertheless, the choice will be made based on self-interest.  Often this choice may relate to the fact that humans not only have competitive tendencies but also hierarchal tendencies. Thus, what may seem like an irrational choice may be totally rational when seen through the eyes of a person seeking to rise above others or gain power and influence.

Though it is likely that we are all competitive in some way we are not equally so, and certainly not for the same reasons. When you are on the Wisdom Path* you tend to feel less tension between your fundamental needs and your short-term wants, thereby reducing the number of things you would feel the need to compete for. If you do not know who you are, then your wants and needs are often at war and it is therefore natural to measure your success by comparing yourself to others.  So let us not act too quickly in condemning competition.  How you choose to compete depends on who you are, and what, why, where and how you are motivated to act.

The positive side to competition and hierarchal thinking is that a healthy, balanced, perspective allows a person to assess their relative ability to survive compared to others within or outside a particular community or group.

Ultimately life is not a win/lose proposition. If there is only one slice of pie and ten people want it, the smartest of the bunch will simply go out and buy or bake another pie and sell it to the other nine people. Competition seems pointless in a prosperous, expanding culture – especially in a culture where a person could theoretically master all of their personal talents.

Often, competing with others can create potentially problematic situations.  On the darker side, purely zero-sum* forms of competitive thinking can cause us to pay excessive attention to the superficial possessions. These can include wealth and the status of others as a reflection of our own wealth, success, talents and accomplishments, rather than paying attention to our core and  primary feelings and needs.

In times of plenty, this point is a valid one, however, in times of great scarcity, a moderate amount of competitive thinking can be quite valuable. By noting how our peers or superiors are faring in the natural economic cycles of abundance and scarcity, we can assess the minimum amount required for our own survival.  In abundant times, competition also helps us to define how much of a surplus is really necessary to store in reserve for the future.

Learning to strategize is important because it allows one to be competitive while reducing unnecessary stress.  The unclear thinker is likely to believe that something bad might happen to them at any time. Strategizing through game-based thinking reduces this fear and often replaces it with laughter. With these skills in tow competition need no longer be the unpleasant affair it is for many people.

In my experience the skilled game thinker often has a well-formed sense of humor to go along with inner wisdom and the ability to solve complex problems. From an evolutionary perspective, the pleasure that comes with laughter has encouraged the development of pattern recognition and other unique perceptual and intellectual abilities in humans.

Let’s explore in greater depth how a skilled competitor might develop an ability to recognize patterns and thus create a personal sense of psychological security? Let’s say that you can afford to buy a new boat, take a vacation to Europe, or install a home entertainment system just as your neighbor can.  Being able to afford the same things may give you a sense of psychological security that comes with knowing you can compete with others economically, whether or not you need to do so at that time.  Even if financial stress were to arise, you would have the sense/knowledge that you are equally capable to handle it as your neighbor.  If you have an understanding of conservation and balance*, this will be a realistic perspective concerning your sense of security.

If an individual does not have an understanding of the concept of conserving and leveraging available resources they may experience unnecessary struggle and suffering in a competitive environment. Ultimately for such a person altruism is irrational and competition is the highest ideal.  Keep in mind that what is presently your surplus could easily become a deficit should uncontrolled external factors such as war, a banking collapse, a stock market meltdown, a mortgage crisis, severe inflation, or a recession arise.   If you do not plan for unexpected occurrences you should not be surprised when the worst appears.
In order to live the best life possible, we must accept the notion that everything we do can be judged against others.  At times it serves our best interests to make these judgments.  How we compete as members of a larger society influences our survival, success and failure.  Paying attention to those in our group that are in an equal or slightly higher position than us (what is commonly called the pecking order) is an affirmation of the wisdom of choices we have already made.  The extraordinary person understands that there is a way to combine a spiritual approach to living while remaining competitive and having well-honed game thinking skills. They understand that if they don’t completely immerse themselves in a journey to inner wisdom, a journey defined by meditation, introspection and altruism, then the need to constantly compete and compare will psychologically imprison them.  It is true that we all live in relationships where we are destined to judge and be judged in relation to others.  Even so, “every man for himself”, though an effective strategy in the short term, is a highly ineffective practice for living well over an extended period of time.  Ultimately, you end up living in a predatory environment that alternates between a zero-sum game and economic anarchy.  This attitude towards people and life is a dark place to reside and in the end can lead to unhappiness, discontent and self-destruction..
Fortunately, any one person’s judgment does not define our happiness, fears, failures, successes, love, and ability to survive. Judgment often arises from intention, clarity of thought, emotional balance and our ability to interact effectively with individuals and groups of individuals as competing and supportive members of a larger society.

The wise competitor balances the concept of winning at all costs to understanding the importance of maintaining stable competition. The competitor that doesn’t understand this risks “choking off some of their own air supply” through a toxic brew of arrogance, narcissism, and an undeserved sense of entitlement.



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


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