Why Do Humans Compete? Human Psychology & How To Win?

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Why Do We Compete?

People also suffer from a phenomenon known as “last-place aversion.” Although players in an economics game tended to give money to those with fewer assets, this tendency waned when a player was ranked second-to-last. The researchers who ran the game also found that in real life, people making just above the minimum wage were among the least supportive of a minimum-wage hike [3].

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And yet, competitive though we clearly are, we underestimate the influence of social comparison. In one study, call-center employees said that achieving mastery at their job was more important than achieving superiority (ranking better than peers). But in reality, relative rankings affected their self-evaluations, and mastery did not [4].

Our desire for relative advantages is not irrational: Such advantages may make us happier. In 1974, Richard Easterlin, an economist, found that although a country’s richer citizens are happier than its poorer ones, as countries become richer, their citizens do not become happier—a contradiction known as the Easterlin paradox. Happiness, Easterlin reasoned, must depend on one’s wealth relative to one’s compatriots: When everyone gets richer, no one gets happier [5]. A study of 12,000 British citizens would seem to support Easterlin’s conclusion, revealing that increased income boosted life satisfaction only when income rose relative to peers of a similar age, educational level, or region [6].

And so it goes. We decry the goal of keeping up with the Joneses, even as we struggle ferociously to keep one step ahead of them. Perhaps this is with good reason. If we don’t, our rivals will win all the glory, and we’ll become bear food.

What Is Wealth For Us Minimally?

H. L. Mencken defined wealth as “any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” According to one analysis of labor statistics, sisterly competition may have contributed to rising female employment after World War II. Among grown sisters not in the workforce, a woman was more likely to get a job if her brother-in-law out earned her husband!

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A Research:

When you look closely, you’ll notice that competition is everywhere in modern society. Economists tell us that competition is an essential force in maintaining productive and efficient markets (i.e., without basic competition between firms, evil monopolies will form). Competition also plays a major role in domestic politics (e.g., presidential elections), foreign relations (e.g., states compete for power and resources), most sports of course, and even the human quest for love is not free of competition. For most people, there is something inexplicably compelling about the nature of competition. Perhaps that’s because, as some scholars argue, “competitiveness” is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for (human) survival.

By Sander van der Linden

Sander van der Linden analyzed the behavioral impact of a popular energy conservation competition that is administered yearly at Princeton University (the “Do-it-in-the-Dark” campaign). During the competition period, students across all residential colleges compete to conserve energy and the college that is able to conserve most energy by the end of the competition period wins and usually receives a prize of some sort (e.g., a paid study-break). I have plotted the results below (daily energy consumption across all residential colleges on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis). If you look at the behavioral pattern, you’ll quickly notice something very peculiar: once the competition starts it seems to have a remarkably positive impact on energy consumption (i.e., people are using less energy; usage steeply slopes down). Yet, here is the kicker: as soon as the competition ends, the trend is reversed and energy consumption bounces right back up to the point at which it started before the competition was launched! This sort of competition is not unique to Princeton, there are well over a hundred universities that yearly take part in the so-called “campus conservation nationals.”

van der Linden, S. (2015)Pin

Source: van der Linden, S. (2015)

What Do Humans Mean By Competition?

A “competition,” by its very nature, is what psychologists call an “extrinsic incentive.” Extrinsic simply means that the motivation to adopt a behavior or decision is sourced externally rather than internally (e.g., when you do something because you get a reward for it). A fundamental characteristic (and downside) of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained! In our example, students stopped saving energy as soon as the competition ended.

Type(s) Of Thinking Patterns

1.The opposite of extrinsic is what we call “intrinsic” motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated to do something (e.g., helping others, save energy) we do it not because of an external reward, but simply because we are personally convinced that it is the right thing to do. By “right” I don’t refer to vague cultural conceptions of good and evil, but rather to morality as an evolved capacity. Long-standing research has shown that the ability to be compassionate, empathize with others and to care about the natural world are evolutionarily adaptive behavioral traits. In fact, a psychological concept known as the “helper’s high” suggests that “doing good” actually makes people “feel good” both psychologically as well as physically (helping behavior often releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, a process which economists refer to as “warm-glow”). For example, an interesting recent study showed that people’s body temperature goes up when they are acting “green” (a literal warm-glow!).

2. Unfortunately, lots of psychological research has also shown that external incentives “crowd out” (i.e., undermine) people’s intrinsic motivation to do good. For example, highlighting the monetary benefits of saving energy actually makes people less likely to do so. This is related to what we call negative “goal-replacement.” Consider that if you were originally intending to save energy because you strongly care about the environment but instead, now simply do so to win a competition, your pro-social motivation for caring about the environment has been “replaced” with a self-serving goal (i.e., winning). Think about other goals such as quitting smoking or losing weight. Are you more likely to achieve either of these goals as a result of a temporary competition or because you are internally convinced that it is the right thing to do? You might ask what the difference is if they both have the same outcome. There is a difference. Let’s say that you do end up saving energy (temporarily) because it helps you lower your monthly bills. Will you still save energy when your income suddenly goes up?


  • Aditya Gaurav-Ceo of Knowasiak-Notes.
  • Christiansen, F.B., & Loeschcke, V. (1990). Evolution and competition. In K. Wohrmann & S.K. Jain (Eds.). Population Biology (pp. 367-394).
  • Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.article continues after advertisement
  • E.O. Wilson (1987). Biophilia. Harvard University Press. Boston, MA.
  • de Waal, F.B.M. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279-300.
  • Post, S. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: it’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.
  • Schwartz et al.(2015). Advertising energy savings programs: The potential environmental cost of emphasizing monetary savings.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 21(2), 158-166.
  • Taufik, D., Bolderdijk, J.W., & Steg, L. (2015). Acting green elicits a literal warm-glow. Nature Climate Change 5(1), 37-40.
  • van der Linden, S. (2015). Intrinsic motivation and pro-environmental behaviour. Nature Climate Change, 5(7), 612-613.
  • van der Linden, S. (2011). The Helper’s High: Why it feels so good to give. Ode Magazine, 8, 26-27.
  • The Atlantic Studies:
  • [1] Solnick and Hemenway, “Is More Always Better?” (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Nov. 1998)
  • [2] Neumark and Postlewaite, “Relative Income Concerns and the Rise in Married Women’s Employment” (Journal of Public Economics, Oct. 1998)
  • [3] Kuziemko et al., “ ‘Last-Place Aversion’ ” (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Feb. 2014)
  • [4] Van Yperen and Leander, “The Overpowering Effect of Social Comparison Information” (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, May 2014)
  • [5] Easterlin, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?,” in Nations and Households in Economic Growth (Academic Press, 1974)
  • [6] Boyce et al., “Money and Happiness” (Psychological Science, April 2010)
  • We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to [email protected]MATTHEW HUTSON is a science writer based in New York City. He is the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

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