While many of us enjoy competition and it can inspire us to perform at our best as individuals and organisations, it has a significant downside at a societal level.  Growing evidence is suggesting that too much competition is one of the key causes of the multiple environmental, social and psychological crises we are facing today. 


The Positive Side of Competition


Competition is ingrained in many aspects of our society. It can be seen in young children in western societies, as they compete for attention or toys. Growing older, we are encouraged to compete for the best grades or in competitive sports. We compete on social media to have the most exciting profile and posts. We compete at work for promotion or to avoid redundancy. Popular television programmes also involve lots of competition.  Businesses need to compete, it’s the law, and this stimulates innovation and drives down prices.


Also, a lot of research evidence shows a correlation between enjoyment, performance and competition. In one study of basketball in 2004, it was found that children most enjoyed mixing the co-operation and the competition, and they performed best in this context. Competition can also increase our performance when we work alone. In 2003, researchers studied weightlifters. They found the athletes bench-pressed more when competing against another person than when lifting by themselves. Businesses often prefer to recruit competitive people for this very reason.


What About Co-operation?


There is an often-quoted and misinterpreted phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’, attributed to Charles Darwin. From this, many believe it is natural for us to compete to improve our lives. Ironically, the phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer in his book Principles of Biology and attributed to Darwin. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, stated that the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ supports co-operation rather than competition. He argued that the struggle is against natural conditions unfavourable to the species and not against each other. Therefore, the species that could draw upon mutual aid attained the greatest development.


According to Ernst Fehr, a Swiss behavioural economist, 70% of the population in western societies are naturally more co-operative than competitive. His research showed that in economic games where all participants are co-operators, the group would look for win–win solutions where no one loses and all benefit equally. However, if a competitive person joins the game, bringing their ‘I win/ you lose’ approach, gradually, all the co-operators become competitive, and the result is to win or lose.  So regardless of whether we prefer to co-operate, in our society, it is inevitable that we all end up competing.


Neoliberalism – Competition at a Societal Level


Influential economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman placed a strong emphasis on competitive individualism. This focus fuelled the development of neoliberalism, which has been spread globally by prominent economists and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


In neoliberal societies, competitive individualism has become the accepted norm. We increasingly believe achievement and non-achievement are down to individual merit and are not a function of societal systems. Ability, motivation and effort are seen as the prerequisites of success. Consequently, it is thought competition enables people to perform at their best. Neoliberalism, therefore, creates systems that encourage competition. These systems then create and reinforce the inequality people experience as a result of winning or losing.


Are we Overdoing Competition?


The IMF is now starting to think we are overdoing competition. In June 2016, the IMF’s Finance & Development journal warned that neoliberalism is jeopardising the future of the world economy. In an article entitled ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’ its authors from the IMF’s Research Department, stated that ‘instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardising durable expansion’.


Regardless of its impact on economic growth, inequality, caused by the competitive individualism of neoliberalism is causing a wide range of social problems.  In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present findings from research into economic inequality and its impact on society. They found that countries with the highest levels of inequality also suffered from high levels of health and social problems. In more equal societies, people are more likely to trust each other, be more engaged in their community and form higher levels of social cohesion.


Over competitiveness can also have a negative impact on our psychological health. When we constantly compare ourselves to others, we frequently develop feelings of inadequacy. Clearly, we cannot be the best at everything and, therefore, we sometimes come off second best. However, constantly trying to be the best can lead to perfectionism. When we take individual competitiveness to the extreme, this is known as ‘hyper-competitiveness’. The German psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined this as an indiscriminate need to compete and succeed at any cost as a means of maintaining or enhancing one’s self-worth. In 2011, Andrew Luchner and his team at Rollins College in the USA found that people who score high on hyper-competitiveness are more narcissistic and less psychologically healthy than those who score low.


By causing inequality, over competitiveness is also negatively impacting on our environment. As humans, we tend to organise ourselves in social systems, which results in inequality. However, the degree to which we accept this social dominance does differ. Researchers have found that people accepting social inequality are less likely to take pro-environmental actions. As a society, when we accept social inequality, we accept conspicuous consumption. Consequently, we willingly allow the richest people in our society to consume more of the common natural resources than they need. Most people accept this inequality of consumption because we are encouraged to believe that we will one day be in the socially dominant group if we work hard. Then we will be able to enjoy all the luxuries associated with conspicuous consumption. It is the American Dream, and it is spreading worldwide with the rise of neoliberalism.


So, is Competition Good for Society?


It is clear that by overdoing competition, we are making ourselves psychologically unhealthy, causing high levels of inequality and destroying the environment.  While winning the competition may make us happy in the short-term, long-term happiness cannot be built upon the suffering of others. Clearly, happiness also cannot be maintained long-term if we are consuming our environment as we compete with each other. Time has now come to recognise that we are interconnected – with each other and with the environment.  If we are to address the psychological, social and environment crises we are all facing then we need to balance our competitive tendencies with a bit more co-operation.


Written by Terence Sexton

Date 16th July 2021


Extracted and abridged from Consciousness Beyond Consumerism: A Psychological Path to Sustainability.

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