The Big Lie

Through the medium of kinship, early humans developed cooperative arrangements that, according to Marshal Sahlins, were apparently mandated by virtue of the conditions of life. In his words, “The emerging human primate, in a life-and-death-struggle economic struggle with nature, could not afford the luxury of a social struggle. Co-operation, not competition, was essential…. Hobbe’s famous fantasy of a war of ‘all against all’ in the natural state could not be further from the truth.” (Sahlins quoted in Kohn, 35).

The Case Against Competition

First published in 1986, Alfie Kohn’s book No Contest: The Case Against Competition provides a carefully researched and documented antidote to the idolatry of competition that passes for common and scientific sense in our Western societies. In this 324 page book Kohn painstakingly takes on, and dismisses, all the cherished myths of competition that make our modern nations go round.

Is competition inevitable?

Is competition a part of human nature?

Yes say the pundits; but no, says Kohn. In fact, says Kohn, proponents of competition who argue that competition is inherent in nature often ignore evidence to the contrary (i.e. that nature is far more co-operative), conflate biological definitions of competition (i.e. natural selection) with the human practice of competition, and even use deceptive rhetorical twists, drawing erroneous and faulty conclusions, just to prove their point.

Maybe so, say the proponents, but competition certainly increases productivity, excellence, and creativity! But not so, says Kohn. In fact, contrary to what most people believe, research indicates that competition undermines performance, reduces creativity, and lowers productivity.

In one study, seven to eleven year old girls were asked to make “silly” collages, some competing for prizes and some not. Seven artists then independently rated their works on each of 23 dimensions. The result: “Those children who competed for prizes made collages that were significantly less creative than those made by children in the control group.” Children in the less competitive condition produced works thought to be less spontaneous, less complex, and less varied (Kohn, 54).

But competition is fun. You can’t have fun unless you are beating somebody down, right?! Except that this is not true either. Research clearly shows that when given a choice between a competitive “beat the other person down” game, and a game that requires cooperative interaction (and where there are no “losers”) children not already socialized to worship competition prefer not to compete.

But competition builds character!

But competition is a fact of nature!

But people who don’t like competition are sissies, weaklings, and losers.

But…

But…

But…

By the end of the book, all the myths have been laid to rest and we are left with the uncomfortable conclusion that the worship of competition, which reaches its frenzied peak in the spectacles of Olympic gladiatorial predation we are forced to endure every two years, is at best a bunch of ideological hokum, and at worst the built-upon-a-pathology engine of a predatorial economic system. Competition is a designed human pathology that allows capitalism, and its beneficiaries, to thrive.

What’s that you say?

Competition is a designed human pathology that allows capitalism, and its beneficiaries, to thrive.

…our heroes (entrepreneurs and athletes, movie stars and politician) may be motivated by low self esteem…. our “state religion” is a sign of psychological ill health. (Kohn, 103)

…most of these …people will agree there is something amiss with the fellow who cannot walk into a room without wondering whether he is the strongest or wealthiest. (Kohn, 103)

It might sound outrageous to some, but after reading the book you realize the statement that competition is pathology should at least be open to discussion. Kohn suggests, reasonably, that the pathology is low-self esteem. People are driven to compete, he says, simply because it is a way to feel good about themselves, because it meets their need for self-esteem. In this view, competition itself seems to be presented as the pathology, something that would “go away” as soon as you met people’s need for self-esteem.

I think he is right about that, but I don’t think competition itself is the pathology, or that self-esteem is the only need that is implicated. I think the pathology derives first from humanity’s unmet needs (plural), and second, from the attachment of these needs, by System Agents, to activities and ways of thinking favourable for The System, and those who benefit from it.

Allow me to briefly explain.

I think as humans we have seven essential needs. I think these needs are our physiological, safety, attachment, truth, power, alignment, and connection needs (read more). I think that, in our modern societies, almost all these needs go unmet, for various complicated reasons. Even when the needs go unmet, however, they continue to provide powerful drives for our behaviour. I think that within a Capitalist Regime of Accumulation, competition and consumption, both of which fuel Capitalists industrialized engine of accumulation, are all offered up as the only way to satisfy all our needs, even our spiritual ones. Thus we compete because competition is the only way we can meet some of our essential needs. Competition makes us feel loved (when we win at least), included (part of a team, if we’re good enough), attached (one of the gang, because family is broken), and powerful, because we can dominate others.  We defend competition because of deep physiological drives, like a farmer would be driven to defend a plot of land that grows their family food, because, whether we realize it or not, competition is how our essential needs are met.

Anyway…

This book is sure to stir up debate and controversy and would be an excellent book for a class on social movements, an introductory sociology course, a course on gender or ethnicity, and even courses on political economy,  the history of capitalism, or philosophy.  Kohn takes aim at some of the most hallowed icons of our modern competitive societies and brings a refreshing dose of evidence-based reasoning to the table. Not for the faint of heart, but perfect for any instructor wishing to raise the hackles of their students and stir up passionate debate and inquiry.

Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)

Just another loud mouth sociology professor, teaching sociology courses at Athabasca University. Check me out here at the Socjourn, over there at The Conversation and at academia.edu.

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