When one looks to nature, we see that competition is everywhere. Organisms must constantly compete with each other for the resources and mates necessary to ensure that their genes are passed on. This is the basis for evolution by natural selection, as first postulated by Charles Darwin (1).
However, there are also certain species that exhibit a different kind of behaviour: cooperation. While this is most evident in humans, it is also present in some other social species, such as our cousins the chimps (2). But if evolution is driven by competition, where did this cooperative behaviour come from? After all, behaviours like cooperation and altruism are often detrimental (at least initially) to the organism, and can result in increased 'fitness' of other potential competitors.
There are a few theories as to how these collaborative behaviours came about. The theory of reciprocal altruism states that an organism will aid another member of its group with the expectation that the favour will be returned (3). The theory of kin selection states that we are driven by evolution to aid those who are most genetically similar to us (direct and extended family members) in order to ensure that our genes are passed on, whether or not we specifically survive to do the passing (4). Handicap theory suggests that, like the massive nutrient consuming tails of male peacocks, altruism and cooperation are behaviours developed in order to make us appear more attractive to the opposite sex (essentially, an organism will 'handicap' itself in some way in order to increase sexual success) (5).
Although there is some evidence for each of these theories, none of them alone appears to completely explain the extreme collaborative behaviours found in human society. There is some evidence which suggests that large scale cooperation arose not only out of an evolutionary need, but also from a cultural need. This has been attributed to inter-group violence, where different groups of humans form cooperative tribes in order to successfully compete with other tribes. Interestingly, there is evidence which suggests that periods of inter-tribal violence were highest during times when resources were scarce. In such situations, the ability to cooperate within the group would greatly improve the odds of survival not just for the individual organism, but for the entire group. Conversely, those groups who lacked the ability to cooperate amongst themselves would have been selected against (6).
The take-home message of these studies is essentially this: cooperation is favourable for survival and it likely arose out of both evolution and cultural advancements, much like competition.
But which type of behaviour is more 'natural' for humans? Are we 'inherently' competitive, or is it more natural for us to be cooperative? As it turns out, neither line of thought is entirely correct.
Experiments designed to test the competitive and collaborative behaviours of humans sometimes take the form of artificial 'games' which were often designed to draw conclusions about economic behaviour by involving a system of rewards. This type of research is used in both economics and psychology. While game theory ultimately rests on artificial situations, enough repetition and variation can allow some general inferences to be made regarding the way humans behave in certain situations. For example, one such study testing bargaining behaviour in different situations showed that the personality most favoured (those who were entirely self-serving vs. those who were concerned with fairness) was based on the economic situation presented (7):
“It turns out that the economic environment determines whether the fair types or the selfish types dominate equilibrium behavior.” - Fehr and Schmidt, 1999
It's also interesting to note the link between competition, cooperation, and self esteem. A study observing levels of self esteem in children made an interesting finding: in societies where competition is encouraged, children associated competition with greater self esteem. However, in societies where cooperation was encouraged, children tended to associate cooperation with greater self-esteem. In either case, it was not some inherent quality of the child, but rather the culture itself that most influenced self-esteem (8).
What this means for us is this: there is no major natural tendency for humans to be competitive OR cooperative; the type of behaviour favoured is based on the situation at hand. Depending on whether competition or cooperation is called for, humans will do what we do best: adapt to the situation at hand, and present the behaviour that favours our survival.
But which one is ultimately 'better' for us? Does competition increase productivity and happiness, or are these things enhanced by cooperation?
For the sake of clarity, I should note here that when I say 'competition', I am referring to competition involving the potential survival, economic affluence, and general well-being of an individual or group.
Here's another 'game theory' type experiment; this one involved brain imaging while the game was being played. Subjects were presented with a puzzle game that was either played under cooperative rules or competitive rules. It was shown that there was some overlap in the areas of the brain that were activated in either case, but that there was also an important difference: the area of the brain activated under cooperative circumstances indicated that the participants experienced cooperation as being more pleasurable than competition.
In addition, the cooperative groups were far more productive as they were actually able to complete the puzzle. Meanwhile, the competitive groups spent most of their time attempting to thwart each other, resulting in little net progress (9).
There is however, some evidence in favour of competition, but only in a very specific area: competition increases the speed at which a task is performed. On the other hand, cooperation increases the accuracy with which the same task is performed. In other words, if you want the job done fast, competition is the way to go. If you want the job done well, you're better off with cooperation (10).
There are other experiments which seem to suggest similar outcomes under cooperative situations. One such study which evaluated a number of tasks performed by groups of psychology students concluded that “greater productivity occurs when the members of a group are organized in terms of cooperative activities rather than competitive” (11). This is further supported by a study examining innovation in Japanese companies which suggested that cooperative projects tended to increase the movement of information and the development of new technologies (12).
There is more to a competitive work environment than just reduced productivity, however. There is also evidence that the stress caused by 'keeping up' in a competitive society is actually having a detrimental effect on our health. This is due to the long term elevation of the stress hormone Cortisol which is associated with increased blood sugar, insulin resistance, loss of muscle mass, loss of bone density, increased abdominal fat storage, decreased immune function, and a variety of other life-shortening effects (13). One researcher has suggested that attempting to thrive in a competitive society causes a significant increase in the activity of the neural stress pathways and that this increased activity is a major contributor to high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome (the precursor to type 2 diabetes) (14). A specific example of this phenomenon can be seen in those who are forced to take undesirable jobs in order to remain financially competitive. Jobs with low perceived control or with little opportunity for the mastery of skills are associated with chronically elevated Cortisol and reduced ability to decrease Cortisol in the bloodstream following a stressful event (15). This is indicative of heightened activity in the neural stress pathways, just as predicted in the former study.
It is also worth noting the effect that environmental stressors can have on a human that is yet to be born. A chronically stressed pregnant animal will give birth to a child with heightened sensitivity to stress and higher baseline levels of Cortisol (16). The negative health effects of living in a stressful environment can literally be passed on to the next generation before they are actually born.
Some of the most alarming evidence against competition is seen in learning ability. Competitive evaluation systems, such as the 'grading' schema used in so many education systems around the world, seem to actively discourage kids from learning. Instead, it encourages them to do the minimum amount of work necessary to avoid 'failure' (17). In addition, situations of unequal competition (where some kids have a clear advantage over others) are associated with lower academic achievement, increased likelihood of learning disability diagnosis, and increased dropout from voluntary social activities (such as extracurricular sports) in the disadvantaged group (18).
All in all, the old notion of competition being an unavoidable behaviour that is more productive, more enjoyable, and always leads to higher achievement seems to have little evidential support. Instead, we see that cooperation is far more beneficial to both the individual (in terms of personal success and perceived pleasure) and to society (in terms of productivity).
Ultimately, the only thing competition is universally good for is speed, which happens to fit in nicely with a capitalistic society where 'time is money'.
But in a society without money, what use would competition be other than as a displeasing, self esteem-lowering hindrance to human progress?
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18. Jochen Musch and Simon Grondin. Unequal Competition as an Impediment to Personal Development: A Review of the Relative Age Effect in Sport. Developmental Review 21, 147–167 (2001)