By SUSAN LIPPMAN
Everyone knows that the United States of America is the most competitive country on earth. So what has been the result ? Income inequality is worse than ever. Exploitation of the many by the greedy few is the norm. It is very unlikely that there could be such an unequal and unfair outcome in a coöperative society. Yet, we’re taught ever since we were very small children of the so-called “benefits” of competition, without an iota of evidence to support those claims. I’ll review some of those so-called benefits shortly and critique them, as well. All the evidence proves that, without a doubt, under almost every circumstance, people’s cognitive and emotional development improves markedly in coöperative situations, whereas, in competitive situations, the opposite is true. Every scientific study that has ever been done proves that coöperation works, whereas competition hurts. Yet, children are placed in competitive environments, beginning in nursery school, where there are contests for everything, from the fastest runner to the best costume, and children get report cards, beginning in kindergarten, where their work is always compared to others in their class. Something we hear often, in defense of competition, is that it is a motivator, and, without it, people would just become lazy and lose all motivation. Well, the evidence proves the opposite.
Alfie Kohn, author of the book, No Contest : The Case Against Competition, which I found quite compelling, says that he believed all the propaganda about how wonderful competition is and about so-called healthy vs. unhealthy competition until he reviewed the research. He was astounded by his own conclusions, based on research about many societies, and how, for the most part, competition hurts, and is his view the very concept of healthy competition is an oxymoron.
My Personal Experience
Before reviewing the literature and the harm competition does to most, I would like to share some of my own, personal experiences, all of which confirm Kohn’s conclusions. As a child, I did poorly in school and even worse in sports. I was not allowed to sing in school, because, supposedly, my singing voice was so bad that if I sang, I would ruin every song I sang — not only for myself, but for everyone else. I came from a horribly narcissistic, unloving family that taught me I was worthless and unlovable, lies that I believed for years. I was extremely shy, as well, which made others, including many teachers, believe that I was stupid. And when the adults around you consider you stupid, worthless, and unlovable, it’s quite likely, almost inevitable, that you’ll believe those harmful myths about yourself. I had to go to school, and I had to get grades. My grades were usually very poor, which made me feel even more “less than” and more stupid than I otherwise might have felt. Almost everyone did better than I, so, therefore, my childhood thinking process told me, they all must be superior. So why even try, even I couldn’t do anything anyway. So, I mostly gave up. I rarely studied, barely did my homework, and I incurred my parents’ wrath when they saw and signed my poor report cards. They believed I was lazy. I believed I was stupid. And it quickly became obvious to me that my teachers thought I was stupid, too, because on the rare occasions when I managed to do something well, the teachers’ response was painfully predictable. “Susan, did you do this yourself ?” they would always ask, implying that I must have cheated, because I couldn’t possibly have the intelligence to do anything well all by myself. People of color experience this behavior from their teachers all the time. Despite my hatred of school and fear of children and teachers, I hated cheating and did, in fact, although on rare occasions, do some things well. Yet, when I was disbelieved, it made me feel even more worthless and feel like giving up, completely. In sports, I was terrible, always the last one chosen and the ones the meanest children chose to hit as hard as they could with the dodge ball. Yet, they were the athletes, and they were rewarded for their athleticism, despise the obvious cruelty, which was condoned by the gym teachers.
As a result, I avoided all sports as much as possible, because of my horrible failure at everything I tried, and my obvious inferiority to almost all the children around me.
Could all of this misery had been avoided, had I gone to school in a coöperative, rather than a competitive environment ? Obviously, I cannot answer that question with 100 per cent. accuracy, given that I did not grow up where there was coöperation, but I can speculate.
Given my post-school learning experiences, which were mostly positive, I would have to guess strongly in the affirmative. I studied Spanish in a non-competitive environment, where there were no grades, and everyone was there to learn, not to outdo anyone else. I did exceedingly well and became fluent in less than a year, despite having never lived in a Spanish speaking country. Because I loved learning Spanish so much, I then decided to learn other Romance languages, right here in New York. Although I never gained the degree of fluency that I did in Spanish, I can speak, read and write in Italian, French, and Portuguese. What accounted for my success ? For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to compete, and my teachers and my peers did not know my history, so no one assumed I was stupid and incapable of learning. That felt so good. People around me, for the first time, ever, actually considered me intelligent.
Later on, I joined an excellent storytelling group, and, as time went on, my storytelling skills improved a great deal. There was never any competition in the group, and the goal was always for everyone to succeed. We all had opportunities to lead, as well as opportunities to follow. Here’s how it went : Every time we told a story, each of our fellow storytellers would tell us what they liked, and then they would suggest ways that the story could be improved. We all supported one another, so we all got better. We were truly a team, and, fortunately, we had no competing teams. That would have defeated the purpose, completely.
As a child, I was seldom creative, except in the one area in which I was appreciated, and there was no competition. That was storytelling. When I was about seven years old, weather permitting, several of the neighbors’ preschool children would gather chairs around, and the kids and their parents would listen to me tell stories, many of which I made up myself. The children and their parents loved the experience, as did I. As young as I was, I also encouraged the little ones to tell stories, too. One again, it was designed for pure pleasure. There was no competition. Had there been competition, I have no doubt that I would have failed miserably.
Let’s Learn From Finland
Recently, there has been a lot written about public schools in Finland. The Finnish school system is considered the very best in the world. There are many reasons for its remarkable success, but one of the primary reasons is that there is no competition. Each child is evaluated individually, and each evaluation consists of the child’s strengths and areas in which he or she needs to improve. No child is ever compared to another, and most learning is collaborative. Children are also taught what is known as “Phenomenal learning,” in which the lesson is multidisciplinary. For example, children might study climate, thereby learning about science, math, and history.
Also, a love of learning is developed, because there are no standardized testing, unlike here, where children are taught to pass a test, but almost nothing else. And teachers are free to teach, so that children can really learn, not only so that can pass a test.
Another major benefit of coöperative learning is that bullying is substantially reduced, often eliminated completely. The same goes for cheating. When everyone is valued equally, there’s no need for cheating or bullying, which are factors that are all too prevalent in the United States, and they usually serve only to seriously interfere with learning.
Coöperation Works ; Competition Hurts
I was pleasantly surprised when I read the excellent book, Coöperation and Competition : Theory and Research by David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson. It is a compendium of all the research that has been done on the benefits of coöperation and competition from the late 1800s until the 1980s. Every study proves that the benefits of cooperation far outweigh those of competition, except, perhaps, for routine tasks, like counting jelly beans.
Children and adults in coöperative settings become smarter and more emotionally well-adjusted, as well as more creative. Indeed, my creativity was almost totally stifled for years, due to competition. Organized sports supposedly build character. That, too, is mostly a myth. Somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent. of children, who join sports teams, drop out, because they find the competition overbearing, according to Kohn. Can sports be played non-competitively ? I believe so. Scores don’t have to be kept. People can alternate the positions they play, and people can help others improve their skills. The ways things are now, the people on one team tend to want those on the other to do poorly. That’s definitely not how it ought to be.
I foolishly engaged in another competitive endeavor as an adult, but, fortunately, for only a relatively short period of time. I joined a Scrabble Club and even wasted time and money on a few tournaments. I hate tournaments. Given my experience, there is no doubt in my mind that they bring out the worst in people. The goal, of course, is winning, which is always at someone else’s expense. Scrabble is kind of a sedentary blood sport, although it doesn’t have to be.
A lot of scrabble players are bloodthirsty and cruel. “You’re so stupid. How could you have missed that obvious play ?” Remarks like that are heard routinely. On the Internet, it’s even worse, because, when you’re anonymous, hostile, hurtful remarks are more common, because people are emboldened to make them. Some tournament Scrabble players annotate their games. Here’s an example of what I’ve read from top level players. One young fellow wrote about his opponent: “I hope he fucks up.” Wow! Not only that, but I find the very idea of playing with, or rather, against an opponent, rather appalling. Opponents feel like enemies to me. I love to play Scrabble coöperatively, but I can’t find many people willing to play that way with me.
For example, it’s quite easy and fun to eliminate score-keeping and have a combined score. It’s also a good idea to let your partner, rather than your opponent, see all your letters, so together you can make the best possible word.
It was very upsetting for me to see people whose self-esteem depended on their Scrabble rating. Ratings themselves are like grades in school, compelling people to compare themselves to others. I wound up hating it all. I think all tournaments should be abolished. They don’t do anyone any good.
Debunking the Arguments in Favor of Competition
Now, I would like to review and critique the usual arguments in favor of competition. Kohn explains that there are four prevalent myths about competition. They are:
A.It’s inevitable ;
B. It motivates us to do our best ;
C. Contests provide the best, and, perhaps, the only way, to have fun ; and
D. It builds character and improves self-confidence.
My responses :
A. The reality is that both competitive and coöperative behaviors, as just about all behaviors, are learned, not innate. If competition were, in fact, inevitable, that it would have to be hard wired in our genes. To date, no one anywhere has ever found a competitive gene in any human being anywhere in the world. Furthermore, it is those who are hellbent on maintaining the status quo who are wont to claim competition’s inevitability. Even infants have been known to be coöperative and engage in altruistic acts, if they are raised in non-competitive environments.
Sure, the argument about competition’s inevitability is very convenient for those who gain wealth and prestige by trampling on others. Unfortunately, competitive behavior, which often is a vicious form of bullying, is rewarded in our society. The “nice” kid, a chameleon, who bullies others when no one is looking and becomes popular, may grow up to be the adult workplace CEO and bully, and he, too, is rewarded with status, money, and privilege. However, that only proves that competition breeds contempt for others, despite its rewards in our society. There is no evidence anywhere that competition is inevitable.
B. Once again, the evidence says the reverse. That people always do better in cooperative environments. The reality is, that for most, competition is a de-motivator. In my own case, I lost all motivation in a competitive environment. My motivation was strong whenever I was in a coöperative setting, and I have seen the same in so many people. Every study that has ever been done proves that children working in coöperative environments do better in all areas, including creativity. Competition tends to stifle creativity. For example, there are poetry slams, in which people are invited to read poems they have written. The audience either cheers them on or cruelly boos them. Usually, the people who bring the most supporters win the contest, and not only is the quality of the poem actually disregarded, but the ones who are booed often never return and never write poetry again. How tragic. Everyone can improve, especially when given genuine encouragement. I believe that poetry slams are vicious and should be banned. They are about demeaning some people and not really about poetry at all.
I’ll share an example from my own life. When I was 21 years old, I wrote a poem, which I really liked. To this day, when I think about it, I still like it, although it may have been better with a few simple changes. However, I made the grave mistake of showing the poem to my father. He tore it apart. He couldn’t find one good word to say about it. Note that my father was a very competitive man who wrote light verse and couldn’t stand anyone else writing anything, particularly his daughter. As he was competitive, he assumed, erroneously, as most competitive people do, that everyone else (including me) was competitive, too. Well, I never wrote anything again for another 10 years and, wisely, I never showed anything to my father. I am convinced that competition is a major de-motivator for many people. It certainly has been and remains so for me.
C. Are contests the best or the only way to have fun ? Whenever I ask children if they like contests, at least 90 per cent. of them say that they despise them, because they never win. Coöperative play is usually a lot more fun for most. When there are winners and losers, the winners may enjoy the moments they win, but, of course, no one can be a perpetual winner. Although there is talk in our society about losing without bitterness or resentment, never once have I seen anyone happy when he or she lost. Moreover, in competitive settings, when someone wins, someone else has to lose. So you can only win at someone else’s expense. And that environment is toxic, and certainly does nothing to develop empathy, something our society needs a whole lot more of.
D. Does competition really build character and enhance self-confidence ? In reality, it usually undermines character, and, regarding the self-confidence, that’s not always a good thing. Many bullies have exceedingly high self-esteem. And that goes for children, as well as corporate executives and corporate criminals. Furthermore,in competitive situations, one’s self-esteem is often dependent on how often he or she wins. Every loss may easily undermine confidence. It would be wonderful if the most altruistic people had the most self-confidence, but that’s definitely not the case in our society today. And competition tends to undermine character, as it is impossible to empathize with someone whom you are desperately trying to defeat, according to Kohn.
One important study indicated that competition, especially in sports, was, in fact, deleterious to character development. Those who participated in competitive sports were prone to suffer from depression, extreme stress, and relatively shallow relationships, according to Kohn.
Finally, here are some conclusions that prove that the benefits of coöperation are amazing, especially when it comes to relationships. People tend to like each other more when they coöperate. Communication and trust are also enhanced in coöperative situations. Kohn points out correctly that trust is virtually non-existent in competitive situations.
Nevertheless, even in highly competitive societies, such as ours, coöperation occurs. Indeed, it is essential for the survival of the species.
So why is all this important ? I believe that the competition that pervades our society threatens not only everyone’s security, comfort, and well-being, but, ultimately, the very survival of the human race, almost as much as climate change and nuclear war. After all, it is the most competitive capitalists, who are willing to destroy the planet for their profit and greed, spending their time and energy trying to outdo others, thereby ignoring the well-being of their own children and grandchildren. Love and competition are contradictory terms. Love cannot exist in a competitive environment.
So let’s all strive to make our schools, our homes, and our workplaces totally coöperative. If we succeed, we may very well save the planet.