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No contest: the case against competition 
by George Catlin 

A discussion of Alfie Kohn's book, in which research debunks the myths perpetuating the 'sacred cow' of competition.

"We need competition in order to survive."
 "Life is boring without competition." 
"It is competition that gives us meaning in life."
These words written by American college students capture a sentiment that runs through the heart of the USA and appears to be spreading throughout the world. To these students, competition is not simply something one does, it is the very essence of existence. When asked to imagine a world without competition, they can foresee only rising prices, declining productivity and a general collapse of the moral order. Some truly believe we would cease to exist were it not for competition.

Alfie Kohn, author of No contest: the case against competition, disagrees completely. He argues that competition is essentially detrimental to every important aspect of human experience; our relationships, self-esteem, enjoyment of leisure, and even productivity would all be improved if we were to break out of the pattern of relentless competition. Far from being idealistic speculation, his position is anchored in hundreds of research studies and careful analysis of the primary domains of competitive interaction. For those who see themselves assisting in a transition to a less competitive world, Kohn's book will be an invaluable resource.

Beating others

Kohn defines competition as any situation where one person's success is dependent upon another's failure. Put another way, in competition two or more parties are pursuing a goal that cannot be attained by all. He calls this 'mutually exclusive goal attainment' (MEGA).

Kohn goes on to define two distinct types of competition. In 'structural competition' MEGA is an explicit, defining element in the nature of the interaction. For instance in a game of tennis there can be only one winner. The same is true of beauty contests, presidential elections, and wars. Everyone knows they are out to beat the others though the rules of engagement may vary considerably between events.

Intentional competition' is a state of mind, an individual's competitiveness or his proclivity for besting others. Anyone can go to a party determined to establish him or herself as the most intelligent, the most attractive, etc. Similarly, in school, the work place, and on teams people can try to beat others whether or not anyone is formally keeping score and declaring winners and losers.

One place where competition cannot exist, according to Kohn, is within oneself. Such striving to better one's own standing is an individual, not interactive matter; it does not involve MEGA. Of course some people cannot imagine pushing themselves without the possibility of 'winning' or the threat of 'losing', but this by no means implies that all motivation is dependent upon competitive frameworks. Throughout history countless large and small accomplishments have been achieved simply out of an individual's desire to do better without any thought of beating others. Such striving for mastery cannot be confused with competition.

Four myths

Kohn argues that the 'sacred cow' of competition stands on four mythological legs. The first of these is that competition is an innate fact of life. This myth has its basis in a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin's theory of natural selection. It is wrongly supposed that the phrase 'survival of the fittest'  implies an eternal struggle among members of the species from which only the strongest (that is, most competitive) emerge victorious.

Actually fitness in the biological sense refers only to the capacity to produce surviving offspring who in turn live to reproduce. When 'survival of the fittest' is understood in this light, it becomes clear that the tendency to cooperate contributes far more to fitness than any competitive inclination. Raising offspring for early animal-humanity was a difficult undertaking, and only those who could work effectively with others were likely to succeed. On the other hand, endangering one's own life as well as the lives of one's offspring through direct physical competition was a risky strategy at best, and those who were genetically predisposed in that direction are thought to have died off millions of years ago. Thus, if we have inherited any predisposition for intra-species behavior, it is toward cooperation. Indeed cooperation is the pervasive, if unnoticed, background of human affairs against which we see competition in such stark relief.

If it is not our 'nature' to compete, then 'nurture', or our learning history, must be responsible for its pervasive presence. Here Kohn quotes the late anthropologist Jules Henry who tells a story of an episode repeated daily in classrooms throughout the world. Boris is unable to solve an arithmetic problem. The teacher asks him to think harder while the rest of the class responds with a forest of waving hands and much sighing. Finally Peggy is called upon and proudly delivers the correct solution. "Thus Boris' failure has made it possible for Peggy to succeed; his depression is the price of her exhilaration; his misery the occasion of her rejoicing ... To a Zuni, Hopi, or Dakota Indian, Peggy's performance would seem cruel beyond belief."

This brief anecdote illustrates two important points. First, if such an event would not occur in all cultures, the human nature argument is considerably weakened. No behavior is understood to be innate or inevitable if some cultures simply do not perform it. Second, the story shows how within Western culture we teach children to compete without even trying. Peggy and Boris have both learned 'the rules of the game' in a way that far surpasses any lesson one could consciously create. No amount of instruction to 'be nice' will ever outweigh experiences such as this. The real lesson learned is to win in socially acceptable ways with minimal acknowledgement of the joy and pain involved. We teach this every day.

To those who would argue that such lessons build character, Kohn replies that this is the second myth of competition: It makes us better people. Kohn's thesis is that "we compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our capabilities and, finally, to compensate for low self-esteem." We want to win because we fear we are 'losers'. Eliminate this comparative, competitive framework of evaluation, and the need to compete (and win) disappears. As Kohn says: "The real alternative to being number one is not being number two but being psychologically free enough to dispense with rankings all together."

Research evidence nicely supports Kohn's thesis that genuine self-esteem is best built outside of competitive frameworks. From a review of 17 separate studies, David and Roger Johnson conclude: "cooperative learning situations, compared to competitive and individualistic situations, promote higher levels of self-esteem and healthier processes for deriving conclusions about one's self-worth." The same essential finding has been replicated in studies of competitive versus non-competitive summer camps, competitive and non-competitive grading systems, and cross-cultural research.

The reasons for such outcomes are none too mysterious. Most obviously, in most competitions most participants lose. But perhaps more importantly, in cooperative situations tremendous gain is derived from sharing one's skills in a helpful way with others. Relationships of trust and appreciation surely do more for one's sense of well-being than the constant struggle to beat others.

Pleasure and productivity

The last two myths about the advantages of competition are perhaps the most dearly held. The first is that competition is fun, and the second is that competitive frameworks make for the highest levels of productivity. Once again Kohn attacks these popular beliefs with a combination of insight and research evidence.

Kohn begins his examination of competitive games by defining 'play': something that is all about process, where outcomes matter not at all. "The master aphorist G.K. Chesterton perfectly captured the spirit of play when he said: 'If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly.' "Obviously this notion of play is directly opposed to the spirit of sports today. We 'play to win'  --  without the slightest sense of the contradiction inherent in the phrase.

The fixation of American children on winning, or at least preventing anyone else from winning, is demonstrated by cross-cultural research with a simple game. In the game two children sit on opposite sides of a checker board-like playing surface. A marker is placed on the middle square and the children are told that they will take turns moving the marker one square at a time for a total of 20 moves. If a child gets the marker to his side of the board, he will receive a prize. Then the game will be played again (four times total), and the other child will go first.

Among four- and five-year-olds, Anglo-American and Mexican-American children almost universally help one another take turns in winning. That is, the child who goes second moves the marker in the direction of the other child's goal. Virtually every game ends with one child getting a prize. However, among seven-to-nine-year-olds, the pattern changes completely. Both Anglo-American and Mexican-American children prevent anyone from winning 50 to 80 per cent of the time. Only Mexican seven-to-nine-year-olds with little or no contact with American culture manage to cooperate and earn prizes in a majority of the games.

The obvious futility of wasting one's energy preventing another from winning provides the starting point for Kohn's critique of competition's contribution to productivity. "Good competitors" don't see themselves as wasting energy in thinking about another's performance, but considerable research evidence suggests that they may be.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a team of researchers at the University of Texas set out to identify the personality characteristics that correlated with the highest levels of professional performance. They reasoned that striving for mastery, a positive attitude toward work, and competitiveness would all correlate positively with achievement. When the first study was run with Ph.D. scientists (achievement measured by how often their published papers were cited) the results were surprising. High levels of mastery and work orientation were found among the highest achievers, but these top achievers showed low levels of competitiveness. To test the result, many more studies were conducted, each time using a different sample of subjects (businessmen, college students, airline reservation agents, and grade school students), and each time the same result was found. Competitiveness consistently correlated negatively with achievement. That is, those high in achievement were low in competitiveness.

But beyond the analysis of individual differences, a more important issue concerns whether competitive or cooperative structures draw out the best work from those within them. Here again the research evidence runs contrary to popular assumptions. Kohn cites one review of 122 studies on the question: "Sixty-five studies found that cooperation promotes higher achievement than competition, eight found the reverse, and 36 found no statistically significant difference." Equally fascinating, in study after study of reward structures, it has been found that the best results are obtained when all team members are rewarded equally for their work.

In sum, to change the competitive nature of society will require a major step in consciousness. It is one thing to say "I don't like competition," and it is quite another to root out its origins within the psyche and to change our structures of work and play. If these changes are to constitute the foundation of the new age, Kohn's book could be a tremendously useful tool in the work ahead. It provides a clear mirror within which to see unchallenged popular assumptions about life. It invites the reader to build a new society in thought and deed.

From the March 1998 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005