Unit 4: Competition – The Socjournal

[T]he higher the concentration of competition in any interaction, the less likely it is to be enjoyable and the more likely it is to be destructive to our self esteem, our relationships, our standards of fairness. (Kohn, 1992, p. 167)

I am appalled when I read that forty-nine teenagers from one school district have been hospitalized for depression, suicide attempts, or substance abuse, all apparently connected to the stress caused by academic competition. (The school administrators responded by citing the “failure to teach adolescents coping skills.” If, by way of comparison, a factory’s polluting smokestacks had send nearby residents to hospital, presumably the factory management would not have the audacity to attribute the problem to a failure to by respirators.) (Kohn, 1992, p. 237)

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported in 1998 that the world’s 225 richest people now have a combined wealth of $1 trillion. That’s equal to the combined annual income of the world’s 2.5 billion poorest people (Gates, 1999)

In Unit 2, we talked about the social issue of homework, noting that there is no evidence to suggest that homework is beneficial, and lots of evidence from the personal lives of families to suggest that homework has a destructive influence. Nevertheless, most parents take the need for homework for granted, sometimes becoming disciplinarians and enforcers in their attempt to get their children used to working long hours both in school and out. We also introduced the concept of ideology, noting that you can identify ideology by it’s “taken-for-granted” quality. Ideologies are ideas, concepts, opinions, and ways of thinking about the world that “just are.” We accept ideology without question, because we can see no other way. Ideologies appear as common sense, natural, inevitable, even God given.

I introduced the idea of ideology in the context of a discussion of school work because we all have direct experience of the powerful impact of that particular ideology. But the notion that kids must do homework is not the only ideology in place in our society. In this unit, we move back and look at ideology once again, only this time we consider one that is more pervasive and far reaching than our ideology of homework—the ideology of competition. This ideology is another one that virtually everyone accepts, not only in North America, but globally as well.

The ideology of competition is the idea, or set of ideas, that support the struggle to beat other people down in order to elevate yourself to the “winners’ circle,” however winning happens to be defined for you. The ideology of competition suggests that beating another person is natural, inevitable, necessary and even good for us. Competition is, according to this ideology, part of the natural order of the Darwinian universe. Competition makes the world go around, and without it, we’d be stuck back in the primitive dark ages without water, heat or light. Ideologists state over and over again that competition is good for us: individually, because it teaches us to be the best that we can be; and collectively, because it helps raise the bar on our collective achievements. We are told competition is good for us globally because it helps us create this techno-cool world we live in. Competition is what makes the modern world possible, and without it, things couldn’t go on.

The truth is that we literally worship competition. I am writing these words just as the 2010 winter Olympics are wrapping up, and from the opening to the closing ceremonies our culture’s idolatrous worship of competition is as clear as the fingers on my hands. In our modern cultures, we have elevated the idea of competition to the status of divinity. We spend billions organizing ceremonies in honour of “the games,” and we broadcast our worship services globally. There are no celebrations bigger than the Olympic celebrations. The message is clear: competition and the aggressive domination of others is a wonderful, glorious, emotionally effusive thing.

Competition is part of the post-Darwinian world of “survival of the fittest,” where organisms and biological life engage in a Hobbesian contest of natural selection, where only the strong and powerful rise to the top to reproduce, recreate, and be rewarded, while all others are cast aside as big “L” losers in the game. Competition, we are told, is what drove us out of the primordial ooze and forward to our glorious and transcendent evolutionary, future.1



Talk to anybody in our society and they will tell you competition is healthy, natural, and even inevitable. Put two people in a room, male or female, leave them alone, and before you know it they’ll find some way to compete.

Or so we are told.

But is it true? Is competition really natural? Is it really good for us?

Well as it turns out, when you ask that question, as Alfie Kohn did in his book No Competition, and really pay attention to the answer, then the response is an unequivocal “No.” Competition is not good for us. It does not appear to be an essential part of human nature, or even a part of nature itself. According to Kohn (1992, p. 17, p. 23), proponents of competition use bad logic, “rhetorical trickery,” and even ad hominem attacks to make their point; however, in fact, co-operation and pro-social behaviours seem more natural than competition. It is natural for our children to play together, and they often do, preferring cooperative activities over competitive ones. And what’s more, it’s natural in nature as well! As Marvin Bates says, there is a superficial competition that we sometimes see in nature, but the essential feature of nature is mutual dependence and a pervasive and integrated cooperation (cited in Kohn, 1992, p. 22).

Talk about a global 180-degree turn around!

In fact, when we take a closer look, says Kohn (1992, pp. 24-33), competition in humans is not natural at all, but rather seems to be learned as a part of our socialization process. It is something that is stamped into us by years of competitive play and competitive examinations in the school system. In other words, teachers and adults “teach it” to us, although perhaps it would be more accurate to say they “condition us” to accept it. And they start early. Initially, our parents reward us when we perform. They give us praise when we do well, and frown when we don’t. We learn quickly that, in order to get the love that we so desperately need as children, we must perform (i.e., love becomes conditional on performance). Later, and as we grow, love and positive regard are gradually withdrawn, and gold stars, trophies, medals and eventually simple letters or numbers (i.e., grades and percentages), and money are all we need to garner the sense of love and support we crave. It is a subtle but effective boondoggle, and it is a classic example of “classical conditioning,” where you take one reward (in this case the positive feelings you get when somebody hugs you and says nice things to you) and replace it with something else that has become associated with the original stimulus. Since this isn’t a psychology course, a word of explanation is probably in order.

In the classic case of psychological manipulation, the Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, was able to associate feeding time with the ringing of a bell. It went like this: Pavlov, genius scientist that he was, noticed that when a white-coat lab rat (i.e., student) brought food to a dog, the dog would get excited and slobber. He then noticed that the dog would eventually get excited just at the sight of the student. The dog had learned that the presence of the student meant food. Pavlov reinforced this finding by doing an experiment where he rang a bell every time the food was presented. Eventually, the dog learned that the bell indicated that food was coming, and would salivate on hearing the bell (see Wikipedia, January 17, 2011).

And that’s classical conditioning.

Just as Pavlov took one stimulus, food, and associated it with another, the ring of a bell, so we take one stimulus, love, and associate it with another, gold stars and trophies. In this way we are conditioned to compete.

Of course, positive reinforcements are not the only psychological technologies used to reinforce our “love” of competition. Negative reinforcements are used as well, from the withdrawal of love and support to the public shaming of the losers. By Grade 3, every child knows where everybody else stands in the hierarchies of competition. They all know who gets the gold stars, and who is shuttled into the “special” groups. By high school children themselves have taken on the task of organizing into hierarchies and cliques based on their competitive perceptions. That is, by high school the children are doing it to themselves. Having had their teachers both model and reinforce competition since Grade 1, they now organize themselves into exclusive little cliques, putting down those who do not meet their standards of dress, intellect or whatever. High school can be a cruel and difficult time, and it is no mystery why.2 Indeed, when you take a look at how much energy we spend on supporting competition in schools, it becomes hard to make a meaningful claim that competition is natural at all. If it was natural, we wouldn’t have to expend so much effort to reinforce it. The reality is, our love of competition is socially engineered.

And that’s too bad when you think about it, because as Kohn points out, competition is not good for us or our societies. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true. Competition is bad for our self-esteem, our mental health and even our economic systems. Competition does not breed excellence, but undermines it:

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 completed for prizes made collages that were significantly less creative than those made by children in the control group.” (Kohn, 1992, p. 54)

And it’s not just children’s performance and creativity that suffers. It is worth quoting at length from Kohn’s treatise.

In any sort of journalism, the ordinary pressures of having to work on deadline are exacerbated by the pressure to get a story on the air seconds before the competition or to get a fact that another newspaper does not have. The result is that the public gets less information over the long run than they would have access to if the various news organizations worked together. Moreover, news stories are more likely to be inaccurate and even irresponsible as a result of competition. When a jet was hijacked by Shiite Moslems in 1985, one observer blamed the “distorted and excessive coverage of terrorist incidents” on “the highly competitive nature of network television.” A second critic independently came to the same conclusion, noting that “too many decisions are made on the basic of beating the competition rather than deciding how to act responsibly.” The structure of competitive journalism creates a situation in which a professional or ethical inclination to forgo coverage—or at least to pause in order to consider the implications of running a story (or to double-check the facts)—is invariably overridden by the fear that ones’ rival will get the scoop. Such competitive pressures ultimately benefit no one, least of all the public. Working against, rather than with, colleagues tend to be more destructive than productive. This corroborates the bulk of evidence on the topic—evidence that requires us to reconsider our assumptions about the usefulness of competition (Kohn, 1992, p. 55).

Once again, I don’t want to rehearse what Kohn has provided in the book. His book is an excellent and well-documented overview that gives you lots of things to think about, from the general lack of evidence that competition is good to the strong evidence that collective cooperation is far superior in generating learning and performance. What I would like to do, however, in closing this commentary is to make the link between the ideology of competition and this course on social movements. We have to ask the question at this point: “As interesting as all this critical material on competition is, what exactly is the relationship between competition and social movements?” Put another way, “Why are we spending so much time on competition in a class on social movements?”

It’s an easy question to answer. As we learned in the previous units, ideas are important. Ideas have substance, and ideas make a difference in the reality that we share. The bottom line is, ideas can mobilize or demobilize people. Indeed, ideas of one form or another are always behind social movements. Ideas make social movements possible, as in the case of the suffragette movement, or the Alberta grown Little Warriors movement.3 On the other side of the coin, we can also say that ideas also make social movements impossible. If you do not believe that smoking is bad for you, if a PR campaign can sow doubts about it, or even make smoking look cool and desirable, then the chances of organizing a movement around the cessation of smoking becomes very difficult. And of course, this was the experience in our cultures for many years. The international PR industry used to support the addictive habit of smoking, promoting positive images and positive ideas about it. As a result of their activities, it took a long time, and a lot of struggle (far more than would have been necessary had opponents not met with industry resistance and PR), to turn public opinion against the practice of smoking.

As you will see when you read this week’s reading, the idea of competition is one of the ideas that demobilizes people and makes collective action in the form of social movements more difficult. Looked at a certain way, competition is, in fact, quintessentially opposed to the formation of social movements. How can we mobilize collectively when we are competing against each other individually? The answer is, we cannot. If we are locked in competition, we simply cannot cooperate, and in the context of social movements, cooperation is necessary. Our global obsession with competition undermines, in a fairly straightforward way, our ability to work together, and working together is the quintessential nature of social movements. Take a look at our simple definition one more time.

A social movement is an organized group of individuals working together to change and transform social, political, or economic realities.

You can’t have a social movement where individuals “work together” if all you want to do is compete with everyone around you. This point is made explicitly by Kohn when he speaks (below) about the irony that those individuals who would benefit the most by working together (i.e., the poor and disenfranchised) instead work against each other in a twisted race to the top which, unfortunately and despite the propaganda to the contrary, the vast majority will never win.4

Members of the underclass in America often seem less interested in ending a system of privilege than in becoming privileged themselves. They rarely challenge the basic script, preferring to concentrate only on the casting. The economic system that predicates wealth on poverty, power on powerlessness, is implicitly accepted even by those with the greatest incentive to challenge it. This is a tribute to the effectiveness of our society’s ideological apparatus, which encourages debate on tiny questions in order to deflect attention from the big ones and which . . . perpetuate a myth of individual responsibility to the exclusion of attention on structural causes. (Kohn, 1992, p. 180)

To reiterate: competition discourages us from working together. It is a testament to the effectiveness of our ideological apparatus that the poor in our societies do not see the damaging and asocial effects of competition. They do not want to end a system that perpetuates their disadvantage. Instead, they (we) want to become “winners” in that same system. The irony is, only a handful of people ever “step onto the winner’s podium.” As the globally expanding gap between the über rich and the very poor attests, the vast majority lose to one degree or another. The irony is especially pointed since, as we saw in the last chapter, the very rich don’t compete in any meaningful way. Instead, overall, their activities are characterized by cooperation. They cooperate on PR; they organize meetings to discuss their interests; and they even benefit from huge transfer payments and bailouts designed to save them when true competitive conditions would force them into bankruptcy.5

I should point out that the idea that the very rich do not compete in the same way that the poor do is nothing new. As early as 1834 Andrew Jackson was commenting on this fact when he said.

I too have been a close observer of the doings of the Bank of the United States. I have had men watching you for a long time and I am convinced that you have used the funds of the bank to speculate in the breadstuffs of the country. When you won, you divided the profits amongst you, and when you lost, you charged it to the Bank. . . . You are a den of vipers and thieves. —Andrew Jackson on closing the Second Bank of the United States (1834)
(cited in Wikipedia, 18 January, 2011)

Since Andrew Jackson’s comments, writers ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Joseph P. Kennedy to Noam Chomsky have pointed out that competition is an ideology fed to the poor, to which the rich do not subscribe. It seems the überrich are not rich because of some evolutionary imperative, or because they are better, stronger and faster than anybody else, but because they have been successful in insulating themselves from the competitive conditions everyone else is faced with. Jonathan Freedland writes as follows about the most recent state bailout of the private financial system:

If the market economy is looking peaky, then its accompanying free market ideology should be on life support. Behold the hypocrisy. The free marketeers have spent the past two decades preaching against the evils of state intervention, the dead hand of government, the need to roll back the frontiers, and so on. Yet what happens when these buccaneers of unfettered capitalism run into trouble? They go running to the nanny state they so deplore, sob into her lap and beg for help. The results of their own greed—“exuberance”, they call it—and incompetence have caused more than 100 substantial banking crises over the past 30 years, yet time and again it is the reviled state which answers the call for help. Four times in this period, the authorities have had to rescue crucial parts of the US financial setup. If the banks make money, they get to keep it. The moment they look like losing it, we have to cough up. In Wolf’s brilliant summary: “No industry has a comparable talent for privatising gains and socialising losses.” (Freedland, 2008)

The bottom line here is that the whole ideology of competition fortifies the status quo. From our social movement perspective, the ideology of competition discourages cooperation and demobilizes the population by encouraging people to look for ways to best each other on individual interests, rather than to cooperate on common interests. However, its impacts actually go deeper than that: The ideology of competition provides a built in justification for the status quo. If somebody is über-rich and powerful, it is not because they received a trillion dollar bailout, not because they got together in some backroom deal or exploited the powerful PR industry to their advantage; rather, it is because they “won” in the big race to the top. As we have been taught ever since we entered kindergarten, the winners deserve the “A” grade, the trophy, and the cash, because they have proven themselves on the combat field of competition.

In any case, the point of this unit isn’t to engage a full scale debate on competition; the point is simply to highlight the ideology of competition in relation to our discussion of social movements. As should be clear at this point, the ideology of competition is relevant to our understanding of social movements because competition demobilizes people and makes even the idea of cooperation difficult to consider.

In the next unit, we apply our knowledge of social movements by examining several issues that have generated social movements in developing nations.


On completing this unit, you should be able to

  1. discuss, critically, the nature of Social Darwinism.
  2. discuss, critically, the ideology of competition.
  3. describe, in detail, examples of research critical of the idea that competition is natural and desirable.
  4. describe ways in which competition is detrimental to the health, well-being and productivity of society.

Reading Assignment

Note: You may wish to read through the “Study Questions” provided at the end of this unit, and keep them in mind, along with the unit objectives, as you complete this reading assignment.

Read the textbook identified below; it is included in your course package.

Kohn, A. (1992). No contest: The case against competition. [Why we lose in our race to win] (rev. ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Note that the Digital Reading Room for this unit contains references to two books of cooperative games. You may wish to request one of these books from the Athabasca University Library for review.

Study Questions

Answer each of the questions below, and submit your answers to your tutor for marking. Expected word counts are provided in brackets after each question. Two hundred words equals a paragraph or two, 400 words is a page, 800 words is two pages, and so on. Use these word estimates as guides only. The goal is to right a lucid, grounded and comprehensive answer for each question.

  1. What is the “ideology of competition”? Where does it come from? Describe some of the ways in which you compete in your daily life. (200)
  2. Review and discuss the scientific evidence relating to competition provided by Kohn. What are your views on competition after reading the book? How did your think about competition before reading the book? (1200)
  3. What are the psychological, social and interpersonal consequences of competition as outlined by Kohn? (400)
  4. What is cooperative learning? Discuss some of the scientific research investigating this approach. Do you find it convincing? (400)
  5. How does competition undermine the formation of social movements? (200)
  6. What does the phrase “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” mean? (200)


Tweet This Post