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Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage

An adaptive strategy that pits one person's interests against another's.

Psychologists have long been in disagreement as to whether competition is a learned or a genetic component of human behavior. Perhaps what first comes to mind when thinking of competition is athletics. It would be a mistake, however, not to recognize the effect competition has in the areas of academics, work, and many other areas of contemporary life. This is especially true in the United States, where individual rigor and competition appear to be nationalistic qualities Americans cherish and praise. It has often been suggested that the American capitalist-driven society thrives because of the spirited competition for a limited amount of resources available.

Psychologically speaking, competition has been seen as an inevitable consequence of the psychoanalytic view of human drives and is a natural state of being. According to Sigmund Freud, humans are born screaming for attention and full of organic drives for fulfillment in various areas. Initially, according to this view, we compete for the attention of our parents—seeking to attract it either from siblings or from the other parent. Thereafter, we are at the mercy of a battle between our base impulses for self-fulfillment and social and cultural mores which prohibit pure indulgence.

Current work in anthropology has suggested, however, that this view of the role of competition in human behavior may be incorrect. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), one of the great philosophers of the seventeenth century, is perhaps best remembered for his characterization of the "natural world," that is, the world before the imposition of the will of humanity, as being "nasty, brutish, and short." This image of the pre-rational world is still widely held, reinforced by Charles Darwin's seminal work, The Origin of Species, which established the doctrine of natural selection. This doctrine, which posits that those species best able to adapt to and master the natural environment in which they live will survive, has suggested to many that the struggle for survival is an inherent human trait which determines a person's success. Darwin's theory has even been summarized as "survival of the fittest"—a phrase Darwin himself never used—further highlighting competition's role in success. As it has often been pointed out, however, there is nothing in the concept of natural selection that suggests that competition is the most successful strategy for "survival of the fittest." Darwin asserted in The Origin of Species that the struggles he was describing should be viewed as metaphors and could easily include dependence and cooperation.

Many studies have been conducted to test the importance placed on competition as opposed to other values, such as cooperation—by various cultures, and generally conclude that Americans uniquely praise competition as natural, inevitable, and desirable. In 1937, the world-renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead published Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples, based on her studies of several societies that did not prize competition, and, in fact, seemed at times to place a negative value on it. One such society was the Zuni Indians of Arizona, and they, Mead found, valued cooperation far more than competition. For example, the Zuni held a ritual

Dominique Dawes on the uneven bars during competition. Psychologists disagree as to whether competition is a learned or genetic component of human behavior. (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced with permission.)

footrace that anyone could participate in, the winner of which was never publicly acknowledged and, in fact, if one person made a habit of winning the race, that person was prevented from participating in the future. After studying dozens of such cultures, Mead's final conclusion was that competitiveness is a culturally created aspect of human behavior, and that its prevalence in a particular society is relative to how that society values it.

Further Reading

Boyd, David. "Strategic Behaviour in Contests: Evidence from the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games." Applied Economics (November 1995): 1037.

Clifford, Nancy. "How Competitive Are You?" Teen Magazine (September 1995): 56.

Epstein, Joseph. Ambition: The Secret Passion. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980.

Freud, Anna. The Writings of Anna Freud. Vol. 6, Normality and Pathology in Childhood: Assessments of Development. International Universities Press, 1965.

Kohn, Alfie. No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Mithers, Carol. "The Need to Compete: Why Competition Is Good for You." Ladies Home Journal (February 1995):136.

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