The Myth of Competition

As I have had unavoidable time off I have had the opportunity to watch a few episodes of The Wright Stuff,  a morning discussion show. They were talking about something, I can’t remember what, but the panel in general somehow got round to registering their endorsement of fostering competition in schools. I think the topic was something to do with kids.

The panelist, an American Comedian (I only say that because I can’t remember his name) said that schools need to encourage more competitive behaviour and schools trying to teach children that everyone is a winner for taking part is absurd, actually dangerous. For all I know this might be one of the ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ conspiracy stories that are so often just made up by right-wing columnists. Maybe schools are proactively teaching children that everyone is a winner. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe it happened one time and someone complained about it to a columnist. Either way it was greeted with applause by the audience and noises of agreement by the famous panelists.

Competitive behaviour is good. Everyone roughly agrees. Why?

Within the context of a sport or game, competitive behaviour makes perfect sense, but that’s only because sports are usually designed to be zero-sum activities. Within the context of the sport or game, winning is what it is and requires no justification. It’s just an axiomatic property of the game that winning is the best state to aim for. Once you step outside of the context of the game or sport that axiom no longer stands on it’s own. Why try to win? Well you might get a trophy or get famous. Why is that a success? Because we happen to have designed our society in such a way as to have defined one type of success around being famous and winning sports.

It might be tempting to turn to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ [1] argument here and say that nature is a zero-sum affair. The thing is… it isn’t. And even if it were… so what? Some aspects of nature, seen in a narrow sense, can be interpreted as zero-sum but to see that you have to proactively ignore much of what you see. Humans are social animals, we innately form communities and sacrifice for each other. Multi-cellular organisms can themselves be seen as a super colony of organisms all miraculously, and apparently against all reason, working together taking just what they need to do what they do so that the colony can survive. This whole system is built on top of the selfishness of genes themselves, but the point is that that selfish, individualist, zero-sum foundation can be the basis of systems that are far from zero-sum. So nature is a mixed bag, not that nature is really a meaningful yardstick in any sense.

So far I have implied that zero-sum and competition effectively mean the same thing. That’s obviously not true. It’s just that competitive thinking gives everything the appearance of a zero-sum game.

I have already alluded to the idea that most situations in which competition is apparently a good idea are synthetic. Society is definitely not a zero-sum game. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. We can all be happy and being happy doesn’t require others to be unhappy. If the idea of competition doesn’t really apply to something so fundamental as happiness or to the dynamics of society why do we even entertain it as anything other than a quirky pass-time? Taken further, situations in which we have implanted competition invariably result in disaster.

As a final thought: If you are motivated to do what you do by competition, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it.

[1] I was just wondering about the etymology of this phrase.  Dogs aren’t known for cannibalism are they? The word ‘dog’ is often used to refer to lowlifes… so maybe dog-eat-dog doesn’t mean ‘the world is filled with terrible people who do each other over’, maybe it means kinda the opposite: that ‘the lowlifes will devour themselves’.


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