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Are There Two Kinds of Attitudes Toward Competition?

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
Minnesota
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When I was in high school, I was a big fan of the rock band, Boston. They had a song that particularly resonated with my impressionistic young mind. I think it spoke to all the stress and insecurity I was feeling at the time about competition and the pressure to succeed in life. Here are some of the lyrics:

I understand about indecision
But I don't care if I get behind
People livin' in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind.


The title of the song is "Peace of Mind" and there is some excellent guitar work backing up those lyrics. You can listen to it here if you like.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Boston, circa 1976

A few years later I was in college taking anthropology classes and reading about peaceful hunter-gatherer societies that lived cooperatively and had no word for war. Then Alfie Kohn's book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition came out and it all became so obvious. Competition was a destructive flaw in American culture. It bothered me a little that I enjoyed chess and wargames, but I became convinced that this was true.

When I went to graduate school to study psychology, I naturally became interested in my mentor, Rick Ryckman's research on "hypercompetitiveā€¯ attitudes. People who score high on hypercompetitiveness have a neurotic need to compete and win in order to maintain self-esteem. Ryckman found that they tended to be aggressive, manipulative, narcissistic, and psychologically unhealthy. I couldn't agree more. But whereas I believed that competitiveness was a single dimension that ranged from very little (healthy) to hypercompetitive (unhealthy), Ryckman was sure it was two dimensional. By his view you could be high on healthy "personal development" competitiveness and still low on "hyper" competitiveness. In other words, you could strive for self-improvement without needing to prove you were better than everyone else.

This was one of many things we argued about. Factor analysis eventually proved that he was right, in as much as factor analysis can prove anything. But by that time I was more interested in authoritarianism, and it's been years since I've done anything with competitive orientations theory, other than the occasional lecture in a Group Dynamics class. But then I got interested in board games, and the psychology of board games, and it's pretty clear where this post is going, isn't it?

Over 100 chess players were recruited from Chess.com and took an online survey which measured their hypercompetitive attitudes as well as their healthy, "personal development" attitudes toward competition. An example of an item that measures the former is "Winning in competition makes me feel more powerful as a person." Participants may respond on a five-point scale labeled "never true of me," "sometimes true of me," etc. An example of an item measuring healthy competitive attitudes is "I enjoy competition because it gives me a chance to discover what I'm good at." Participants also rated how they typically felt after playing chess on a set of standardized measures of positive affect (e.g. cheerful, excited) and negative affect (e.g. angry, frustrated). This gave four statistically reliable measures: hypercompetitiveness, healthy competitiveness, positive affect, and negative affect. Correlations among these variables are reported below.

From gallery of shotokanguy


The data indicate that the two competitive attitude orientations are substantially correlated at r = .50, p < .001. At first glance this might suggest that I was on the right track when I was in graduate school and that there is only a single dimension of competitiveness. The way these two orientations relate to the other variables makes this implausible though.

As predicted, individuals with more hypercompetitive attitudes reported more negative affect after games, r = .48, p < .001. This is consistent with their generally lower psychological health. However, they also reported somewhat more positive affect, r = .30, p < .01. Positive and negative affect are independent dimensions, so it is certainly possible to feel both, even at the same time. It makes sense that hypercompetive individuals would get a rush of dopamine and testosterone when they win, so that is likely what we are picking up here. It's the old "thrill of victory and agony of defeat" concept.

People who scored high on healthy competitiveness tended to report more positive affect, and this correlation is the highest statistic in the data, r = .56, p < .001. They are quite simply having more fun. Even more telling, however, is the correlation between healthy competitiveness and negative affect, which was nonsignificant at r = .10. If you are competing to improve yourself as a person, it is only a minor setback when you lose, so not much negative affect. If you are competing because winning is the only thing that matters and your sense of self-worth depends on it, then yes, you will be pretty upset when you lose.

I think these data show an interesting and theoretically meaningful divergence between the two competitive orientations. On the other hand, we are making inferences from a small, self-selected sample of chess players who are not generally known for their mental health (ahem). If only we had a larger, more representative sample with additional control variables. Ah, fear not, gentle reader and come back next week for Part Two!
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