Competition is as competition does « The Socjournal

Through the medium of kinship, early humans developed cooperative arrangements that, according to Marshal Sahlins, were apparently mandated by virtue of the conditions of life. In his words, “The emerging human primate, in a life-and-death-struggle economic struggle with nature, could not afford the luxury of a social struggle. Co-operation, not competition, was essential…. Hobbe’s famous fantasy of a war of ‘all against all’ in the natural state could not be further from the truth.” (Sahlins quoted in Kohn, 35).

First published in 1986, Alfie Kohn’s book No Contest: The Case Against Competition provides a carefully researched and documented antidote to the idolatry of competition that passes for common sense in our Western societies. In this 324 page book Kohn painstakingly takes on, and dismisses, all the cherished myths of competition that make our modern nations go round.

Is competition inevitable?

Is competition a part of human nature?

Yes say the pundits but no, says Kohn. In fact, says Kohn, proponents of competition who argue that competition is inherent in nature often ignore evidence to the contrary (i.e. that nature is far more co-operative), conflate biological definitions of competition (i.e. natural selection) with the human practice of competition, and even use deceptive rhetorical twists, drawing erroneous and faulty conclusions, just to prove their point. Maybe so, say the proponents, but competition certainly increase productivity, excellence, and creativity! But not so, says Kohn. In fact, contrary to what most people believe, research indicates that competition undermines performance, reduces creativity, and lowers productivity .

In one study, seven to eleven year old girls were asked to make “silly” collages, some competing for prizes and some not. Seven artists then independently rated their works on each of 23 dimensions. The result: “Those children who competed for prizes made collages that were significantly less creative than those made by children in the control group.” Children in the less competitive condition produced works thought to be less spontaneous, less complex, and less varied (Kohn, 54).


But competition is fun. You can’t have fun unless you are beating somebody down!

But uh uh! Research clearly shows that when given a choice between a competitive “beat the other person down” game, and a game that requires cooperative interaction (and where there are no “losers”) children not already socialized to worship competition prefer not to compete.

But competition builds character!

But competition is a fact of nature!

But people who don’t like competition are sissies, weaklings, and losers.




By the end of the book all the myths have been laid to rest and one is left with the uncomfortable conclusion that the worship of competition, which reaches its frenzied peak in the spectacles of Olympic gladiatorial predation we are forced to endure every two years, is at best a bunch of ideological hookum, and at worst the sign of a political and economic system built upon a psychological pathology.

What’s that you say?

Competition is the sign of psychological dysfunction?

…ours heroes (entrepreneurs and athletes, movie stars and politician) may be motivated by low self esteem…. our “state religion” is a sign of psychological ill health. (Kohn, 103)

…most of these …people will agree there is something amiss with the fellow who cannot walk into a room without wondering whether he is the strongest or wealthiest. (Kohn, 103)

It might sound outrageous to some, but after reading the book you realize it is a fair statement and should be at least open to consideration and discussion, especially when you realize that there is almost no evidence to support the idea that competition is either natural, beneficial, or inevitable, and particularly when we you see the lengths to which supporters of competition will go to bolster an otherwise weak and ridiculous argument. When even smart academics dissemble and confabulate you have to ask, what the heck is wrong with them. Indeed, what is wrong with us all. Kohn suggests, reasonably, that it is an issue of self-esteem. People are driven to compete, he says, simply because it is a way to feel good about themselves. It makes sense when you think about it. As children we no sooner enter the hallowed halls of learning then we are immediately inserted into a competitive hierarchy where we are made acutely aware of our relative position, and where our place in the hierarchy is constantly re-presented and reinforced by the practice of gold stars and grading. Our children learn right from day one that being better than others is what gets them the love and that anything else is nothing more than the big “L” on the forehead.  And let us be clear, it is not merely about performance but about performing better than others. And if you say that’s not the case, then why not drop the practice of grading children altogether? Why not make everybody feel good about themselves by giving everybody an A and thus eliminating the soul crushing attack on self-esteem, as Canadian history Professor David Noble does in his courses. The evidence is clear, grades undermine creativity, critical thought, and performance, so why bother instituting competition at all?

This book is sure to stir up debate and controversy and would be an excellent book for a class on social movements, an introductory sociology course, a course on gender or ethnicity, and even courses on political economy,  the history of capitalism, or philosophy.  Kohn takes aim at some of the most hallowed icons of our modern competitive societies and brings a refreshing dose of evidence based reasoning to the table. Not for the faint of heart, but perfect for any instructor wishing to raise the hackles of their students and stir up passionate debate and inquiry.

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Tags: alfie kohn, competition, Darwin, evolution, ideology, Pedagogy

Categories: Book Reviews, Featured Articles, New, Pedagogy