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The State Religion of Competition

Oliver Heuler | 22.07.2008 12:11 | Education | World

The inevitability or desirability of competition is a myth. Competition is learned and not part of our nature. Cooperation makes possible top performance, not competition. The alternative to No.1 is not No.2 but rejecting the whole mania of rankings. Masculinity really has nothing to do with hitting a golf ball in a hole.


Three Myths Serve as Pillars

By Oliver Heuler

[This article published in: Streifzuge, Nr 42, March 2008 is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web, Oliver Heuler, b. 1967, is an anarchist who lives virtually under]

Life for us has become an endless series of competitions. Competition is so present that we do not even reflect about it or put it in question. No one wracks his brains over what it really means when one is constantly in situations where one has to fail so others can have success.

Competition plays a different role in the economy, schools and leisure time of different cultures. Some societies manage almost without competition. Nevertheless competition is deeply anchored in human psyches in America and many European countries including Germany. Competition is practically our state religion. Resistance to competition borders on heresy.

The school system raises us to outstrip others and see them as obstacles to our own success. Our free time is defined by games in which one person or team has to beat another. Bookshelves are full of tips on successful competition. A subliminal battle is often carried out in the family where acknowledgment is regarded as a scarce commodity and love becomes a trophy.

No part of our life can escape the pressure to rank ourselves and others. The famous remark by Vince Lombardi “Winning is not everything; it is the only thing” is a cultural imperative and not only an expression of a fanatic football coach.

When we say an activity is competitive, we mean a mutually excluding realization of goals. In other words, my success necessitates your failure. One must lose so the other wins as in poker; we speak of a “zero-sum game.”

When we say a person is competition-oriented, we mean an inclination to cut out others. On a social occasion, one of those present tries to prove to everyone that he is the most attractive and intelligent person in the room although no prize is awarded and none of the others agrees. That is the characteristic of the neurotic: he always compares himself with others, even in totally inappropriate situations.

Basically one can reach a goal in three competing ways – the participants can work against each other in a cooperative way – the participants can work with each other in independent ways – or each works for himself.

Sometimes we assume we are only working for one goal and set standards for that when we compete. This is simply wrong. We can solve a problem without competition and measure our own progress… The inevitability or desirability of competition is a myth…

Whoever questions competition must identify three claims as myths:

1. Competition is part of our nature
2. Competition makes possible top performance
3. Contests are more fun than confirmations without competitive character.

All three myths can be deconstructed with the help of countless studies in the areas of social psychology, sociology, psychoanalysis, educational science, leisure time studies, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology. When we strip competition of its claims of what it allegedly achieves, only its essence remains: mutually excluding goal realization. One has success because it is denied to others.


When a quality is said to be part of our nature, this means it is found with all people, in all cultures and in the whole species. In addition, it would be the unavoidable fate of all generations. Since it can easily be shown this is not true, one must ask who benefits with this claim. History shows that human nature is always advanced when changes are prevented. Thus realization of ideals and reforms is nipped in the bud. This is an enchanting idea but unfortunately “against human nature,” it is said. The conversationends. All this has an agreeable psychological side-effect. “If I cannot change myself, it is pointless to convince me that I can.” The subject is definitively closed.

The competition in the animal world is often presented as convincing evidence that competition is part of our nature. Before we consider the material in detail, the assumption that statements about animals can be transferred unrestrictedly to people should be opposed. Our species has a special position on account of the mediating role of culture. Only we humans manipulate symbols, reflect about thinking, raise questions, make value judgments, value absurdity, create institutions and then reflect about their limits. Therefore judgments about the value of competition between persons must be grounded mainly on social and not biological connections…

A careful analysis of the concept of “natural selection” would also be helpful. The theory assumes that the future chances of a species are greater the more a species adapts to its environment – especially to changes in its environment. Adapting means reproducing and reproducing means surviving. Up to this point, there is no argument. However for many years biologists and behavioral researchers encouraged the widespread notion that natural selection is synonymous with competition. “The survival of the strongest,” to take up a term from Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, seems to be a question of struggle. The winners survive to carry on a new struggle on a new day.

In reality there is no necessary relation between natural selection and competition. The identification of competition and success in natural selection is only a cultural prejudice. Success defined as the number of descendants can be realized through many strategies: the living together of different species and organisms adjusted to one another. “Natural selection” does not indicate whether competitive or cooperative conduct is preferred. Darwin hiself used the term “struggle for survival” in a broad metaphorical sense that included the dependence of beings on each other. But what does the praxis look like? Astonishingly natural selection appears without noticeable battles. Sometimes a struggle is more obstructive than conducive to natural selection. Gaining advantages in reproduction is commonly a peaceful process. Therefore better integration in the ecological situation, maintaining the balance of nature, a more efficient use of available fodder, better care for the young, removal of tensions (battles) in the group that could hinder reproduction and utilization of environmental resources that are not objects of competition or are exploited less effectively by others.

Natural selection does not require competition but discourages it. As a rule, survival demands that individuals work with one another, not against one another – within the species and between species. If that is true and natural selection is the motor of evolution, the basic theme of “nature” so to speak, then we would have to expect a great number of animals who cooperate with each other. And so it is.

In 1902, Peter Kropotkin was the first to show the all-pervasive cooperation among animals. After analyzing the habits of different species from ants to bisons, he concluded: “Competition among animals is limited to exceptional times. Better conditions are created when competition is overcome through mutual aid. That tendency of nature is not completely realized but is always effective. That tendency comes to us from the bushes, the woods, the rivers and the oceans.”

Fifty years later W.C. Allen confirmed this principle in his book “Cooperation Among Animals.” Montago compiled an impressive bibliography of other scholars who reached the same conclusions. The zoologist Martin Bates is a representative of these authors. Competition or struggle is a superficial phenomenon that changes into a mutual dependence. The basic theme of nature is cooperation, not competition. An all-pervasive and completely integrated competition makes it hard to disentangle and follow the individual strands. For example, it is in the interest of two species not to fight for a water hole. Migration is one of many strategies enabling both parties to survive. Remarkably these authors claim animals tend to avoid competition and that their conduct is characterized by cooperation.

A question presses here. If Kropotkin drew this picture long ago and his statements are largely accepted by science, what can explain the wide diffusion of the opposite picture? Why does the idea of a cooperative nature seem so surprising to many of us? Several answers are possible. Firstly, cooperation is not always easy to see for the naked eye while competition can be recognized effortlessly. Gazellas protect other birds from enemies; baboons and gazelles cooperate in identifying dangers (the former by keeping a lookout and the latter by listening and smelling). Chimpanzees hunt cooperatively and share their prey. Pelicans fish cooperatively. One could even describe the production of oxygen with plants and carbon dioxide with animals as prototypes of cooperative interactions that become more marked and conscious with the higher species. However all this does not make good television. It is easy to ignore connections that do not attract any attention.

Secondly, lingual ambiguity exists. As a consequence of Darwin, some biologists and zoologists use “competition” in a metaphorical sense and mean only natural selection…

There is a third reason why nature seems to us as competitive and we ignore the impressive pictures of mutual aid. The general tendencyis for the observer to project himself on the observed object. Since competition is present in our culture, ecologists in analyzing animal communities assume that it must also be present there.

As we saw, cooperation has a much higher survival value than competition. This is true above all for people as Darwin recognized. When we ask whether competition in an aggressive combative sense ever has an adaptive value for people that is very doubtful, then it is very clear it has no kind of adaptive value any more in the modern world. Cooperative conduct may never have been as important in the history of humankind as today.

If one could show competition is a learned behavior, that would refute the idea that competition is in human nature. The first comprehensive analysis of this question was commissioned by the Social Science Research Council. Mark May and Leonard Doob summarized about 24 research studies: “Humans by nature are goal-oriented. Whether they strive for these goals with others (cooperation) or against them (competition), they are both learned forms of behavior. Neither of the two ways of acting can be described as genetically more essential or original.”

On the basis of extensive experience with athletes of all ages, sports psychologists researched the same insight: “Competition is a learned phenomenon. Humans are not born with the motivation to win or be competitive. We are equipped with a certain activity potential and we all have a survival instinct. But the will to win must be trained and arises more under the influence of family and environment.”

Competition is not necessary. Whether it is desirable deserves reflection. This brings us to the


Whoever reads popular articles about competition or entertains friends always encounters the same firm belief: “A minimum level of productivity would disappear if we did not compete. Competition brings forth our best sides. It is synonymous with goal-orientation, with acquisition of abilities and striving for success. A non-competetive society would be a boring experience, a leaden sea of the inefficient, of psychological withdrawal to the bosom of false security and self-satisfied mediocrity.” Let us free ourselves from this mass opinion and look at the facts. Margaret M. Clifford assumed competition would help her fifth-grade class learn a series of words. “Contrary to our expectations, their memory capacity was not noticeably improved. “competition only stirred interest among the winners.” Morton Goldman and his co-workers found that college students solved anagrams better cooperatively than competing against each other.

Among high school students, “cooperation was more productive than competition” as Abaineh Workie discovered in a card game…

A survey of thirteen studies that all showed competition did not bring better results seems impressive. In 1981 David and Roger Johnson and their co-workers published a very ambitious meta-analysis, an analysis of past research findings. In their comprehensive analysis, all studies between 1924 and 1980 that focused on performanace in competitive, cooperative and individualistic structure were probed. They found 65 studies that concluded cooperation produced higher performance than competition. In 108 studies, cooperation led to better performances than independent work. At present there is no task for which a cooperative approach did worse than a competitive or individualistic style. In most tasks (especially the more important learning tasks like concept appropriation, verbal problem solving, categorization, spatial thinking, recollection and memory, motor activity and guessing/judging/predicting), cooperation promotes performance. In addition, cooperative conditions are conducive to performance irresxpective of whether there was competition between groups or not.

“The competitive `Winner-takes-all-system’ had the worst results.”

Far removed from making us more productive, a structure that plays off one against the other hinders performance. Children learn poorly, not better, when education is changed into a rivalry. Certainly, from the perspective of the teacher, it can be seductive to organize instruction as a race to arouse and hold the attention of the students. But the real attraction of this strategy is that it makes instruction easier but not more effective. Pedagogical problems are avoided, not solved. The fact that children seem to find joy there says nothing about the quality of their instruction. Joy could have a different background. Perhaps the interest of students does not arise so much from the competitive character of games but from the fact that it replaces regular lessons. Many teachers draw the conclusion that competition wakens and holds the attention of students better without ever trying cooperative alternatives. When they have these experiences, children as a rule prefer cooperation.

The attempt to do something good and the attempt to defeat others are two different things. In competition, supposed losers often see no reason to exert themselves. This is also true for those certain of winning when they don’t give their best. The effort to outstrip others has nothing to do with top performance and does not reduce the intrinsic motivation of participants… We destroy the joy in learning which on principle is very strong by encouraging working for absurd wages – for the shabby feeling of being better than the others.

This process is disgraceful for many reasons. Performance under competition suffers because of extrinsic motivation.


“Sport is war minus shooting.” (George Orwell)

If competition is neither natural nor increases performance, one could still cling to it for purely hedonist reasons. Perhaps iot is simply fun. That would also be legitimate. However this hypothesis seems dubious. Relatively few persons say they find joy in the hectic infighting in their job for positions, prestige and profit. There are almost always remarks about the pleasant sides of competition in leisure time activities. The defense of competition shifts to the weekend. Competitive games are obviously different from the competition in most areas of life. The hope for immediate success and the anxiety of immediate failure in an activity without any meaning beyond the situation means something completely different than permanently living at the edge of the abyss in which a competing industry lets its losers crash. In the question whether competition is fun, the competition is often experienced as unpleasant and as a source of considerable anxiety. The pressure to be the winner on the playing field is not entirely different from the pressure in the office. Therefore a certain measure of skepticism seem appropriate in the question about the ennobling aspects of competition.

“Children and youth usually copy role models without criticism and restriction. When a man is a good basketball player, young boys try to imitate him athletically and adopt his moral standards, his kind of humor, attitudes and lifestyle. (Sponsorship is a gigantic industry that lives worldwide from the advertising in and with sports as based on this imitation) If responsible government agencies want to persuade young persons that smoking is harmful, that a condom should be used or waste should not be simply thrown away, they start a campaign with an athlete as an advertisement. When a firm determines what software used by economic enterprises will sell better, it hires a golfer. As absurd as it may appear sometimes, the masculinity of a man in our society is measured by such success criteria. This mechanisms still functions. When a whole civilization is convinced that the significance of a man depends on how he hits a golf ball, then we are deeply brainwashed.

As philosophy we hear from athletes the game is everything and being there is important. The questions “Who hit whom? And “Who won the medal? Are put to them. The modern competitor rightly has the feeling of having to win if he wants confirmation, respect and admiration.

When governor of California, Ronald Reagan told a college football team they should “feel pure hate for your opponent. Your hate may be quietly unbridled hate because it is only symbolic as long as you wear your team colors.”

The competition between groups – the creation of a common enemy, a dynamic of “We against the others” – is not a necessary pre-condition for group cohesion. That every player is only half of those present, should cooperate and have friendly feelings could also be characteristic for the male team event.

Oliver Heuler
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Display the following 5 comments

  1. The competition myth myth. — MonkeyBot 5000
  2. competition is not naturally inherent, nor is social darwinism — chimp23
  3. Not advocating social darwinism — MonkeyBot 5000
  4. Ludicrous — Benny Hill
  5. Captain Re-Post — to the rescue!