America reclaimed the top spot in 2013, and if you selected the U.S., you either know a lot about business, or you may have been influenced by your social identity as an American. Our natural survival strategies encourage us to “root for the home team,” and these instincts can influence our decisions.
The Art of Competition
Competition's curious effects on the brain.
Whether you're talking about sports, card games, investing on Wall Street, or simply vying a for parking space at the mall, it sure seems as if the human race is divided into three classes. At one extreme, some are born competitors who love the thrill of winning, and are willing to take big risks to end up on top. At the other end, there are others who worry and plan, who like a sure thing, act tentatively, and tend to focus on not losing. Most of us tend to fall somewhere in the middle. As it turns out, that mix is no evolutionary accident. The human species seems to have a healthy mix of people with varying degrees of competitiveness, because differences help to balance out one another in a way that may have optimized the human species' prospects for survival.
The Anatomy and Physiology of Competition
Competition and cooperation might seem like opposites. But a study published in the journal Neuroimage in 2004 reported that both activities activated some of the same areas of the brain—in particular, a frontoparietal network involved in executive functions, and the anterior insula, which is involved in autonomic arousal. But the researchers also found a few differences. Cooperation activated the orbitofrontal cortex, while competition seemed to be associated with the inferior parietal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. The MPFC is among the brain regions with the highest baseline metabolic activity, and research suggests that it may also be the spot where we form our self-concept. Maybe that has something to do with why famous football coach Vince Lombardi opined that "Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing."
The brain’s reward circuitry, which includes the anterior cingulate cortex and other areas, also is crucial to our competitive urge.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as they used to call it in the intro on ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" program, actually is a biochemical process. When you’re an athlete on a team—or even just a fan in the cheap seats—your brain’s reward system is activated by your emotional investment in the game. When you’re on the winning side, your brain releases a higher-than-usual amount dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to send signals between nerve cells. That produces a powerful pleasure response.
Your brain likes dopamine a lot, which is why you actively seek out opportunities to win, and feel the urge to push hard and beat your own personal bests, when you’re not trying to outdistance others.
Other chemicals in the body are affected by the outcome of competition as well. Researchers have found that winners of sporting competitions tend to show higher testosterone levels than losers, and supporters of winning candidates in U.S. Presidential elections experience a boost after the results as well.
Interestingly, oxytocin—the so-called "love hormone" that we produce when we’re in a romantic relationship or feel closeness to a child—also can play a role in competition, if you’re a man. Israeli psychologist Simone Shamay-Tsoory, in a study published in 2013 in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, gave the hormone to male and female subjects, and then showed them video clips of various social interactions. He found that oxytocin helped men to perceive competitive situations. Women who got a dose, in contrast, were better at spotting situations in which participants were family members.
We don’t quite emerge from the womb as competitors, but the urge to win surfaces when we’re relatively young. A study by Austrian and British researchers, published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2012, found that children begin to understand competitive behavior starting at around age four.
While a certain amount of competitiveness seems to be innate, the drive to win is also influenced by environment. Highly successful competitors—from Thomas Edison to Bill Gates—often begin competing with older siblings. The theory is that the younger children are compelled to become more driven and creative in order to get their parents’ attention.
Why we need different degrees of competitiveness
Some people enjoy competition and fit into the category that some social scientists call 'warrior' brains. Conversely, there are others who hate being evaluated, and avoid such situations whenever possible. They’re known as the by sociologists as 'worrier' brains.
This difference may come down to differences in how sensitive various parts of our brains are to dopamine. In a study described in a 2012 Time article, Vanderbilt University neuroscientist scanned the brains of subjects to measure the responsiveness of their dopamine systems and then had them play button-pressing games in which they could earn money. They found that the players who worked harder at the game had higher levels of dopamine responsiveness in the striatum, a brain area linked to desire and pleasure, and also in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area linked to drive and planning. In contrast, the people who didn’t try as hard tended to have higher dopamine responsiveness in the insula, a part of the brain that monitors internal body states such as hunger, cold, pain and thirst, and focuses upon costs rather than benefits.
It’s easy to think of the Warriors as superior to the Worriers, but in terms of the survival of the human species, both extremes have been crucial. If our ancient ancestors all had warrior brains, everyone in the whole tribe would have been out there tangling with mammoths and sabre-tooth cats on his or her own, taking extreme risks and often losing their lives in an all-out quest for glory and the resulting rush. If they all had been worriers, conversely, the human race might never had made it out of east Africa and ventured to the far ends of the Earth. Instead, evolution shaped the collective human psyche, so that most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the Warrior-vs.-Worrier continuum. We’ve got the ability to feel caution but also to take risks.
Is There Such a Thing as Being Too Competitive?
Those of us who live in western capitalist societies tend to view competition is useful, because it stimulates innovation. When we’re under pressure or have an incentive to win, we sometimes come up with more creative solutions to problems—even ones that seemed unsolvable. We’ve seen this sort of contest produce technological breakthroughs and create mighty fortunes for companies such as Google and Apple.
But too much of a good thing can sometimes produce diminishing returns, or even be harmful. When we compete head-on-head, for example, we tend to imitate each other’s moves, whether or not they work. A study by U.S. and Dutch psychologists, published in 2013 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that pairs of competitors playing a touchscreen version of the whack-a-mole arcade game, in which money could be earned if they hit targets before their opponents could, developed highly synchronized reaction times and movements—and persisted at them, even if it resulted in lower scores and payoffs.
Many corporate leaders seem to think that competition among workers fosters better performance—a mentality depicted in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, in which a manager tells staffers that the first prize in the monthly sales competition is a Cadillac, while the second place finisher gets a set of steak knives, and whoever is in third places will be fired. But research actually shows that a demanding—or threatening—corporate culture actually creates stress that can hinder creativity, so that workers perform worse instead of better. A study of 6,000 workers by British neuroscientist David Rock, cited in a 2012 Forbes article, actually found that only 10 percent of people do their best thinking while at work, in part because of such pressure.
- Social Loafing
- Social Selection
- Slacker Syndrome
- Answer: Social Loafing
- Ruth Benedict
- Margaret Mead
- Franz Boas
- Stephen Colbert
- Answer: Margaret Mead
- Benjamin Franklin
- Eli Whitney
- George Washington Carver
- Thomas Edison
- Steve Jobs
- Answer: Thomas Edison
How to Have a Winning Brain
Tips on how to win
in life more often.
In the Brain Games episode about competition, we learned that our motivation to win games is tied in with a brain chemical, dopamine, which is linked to the pleasurable sensations that we interpret as the thrill of victory. We also learned that some people’s brains are hard-wired to be competitive warriors. The good news, though, is that while you may not be able to completely alter your inherent tendencies, there’s a lot that you can to make your brain more warrior-like. Harvard University psychologist Jeff Brown and his neuroscientist colleague Mark Fenske’s book, The Winner’s Brain, contains some great tips on how to win more often.
Learn to read faces. Winners—whether the game is poker, or corporate takeovers—tend to be pretty good at reading other people’s facial expressions and body language. Brown suggests improving your skills by watching a few scenes of an unfamiliar movie with the sound turned down, and then trying to figure out what emotions the actors are projecting. Then watch the scenes again with sound, and see how accurate your perceptions were.
Practice Mindfulness.Winners tend to be able to live in and concentrate in the moment, rather than worrying about the outcome or agonizing about past mistakes. While yoga and meditation are great for developing mindfulness, there’s an even simpler exercise that you can do. Every so often, just stop what you’re doing and describe out loud what you are feeling, whether it is stress, anger or joy. After you try this a few times, start paying attention to the details, such as how your posture, breathing, and the degree of relaxation in your facial muscles may vary for each emotion.
Concentrate on one manageable thing. In the 1996 Olympics, gymnast Kerri Strug nailed a winning vault, even though she had a severely injured ankle, by forcing herself to block out everything from her mind but one detail—in her case, a maneuver called the Yurchenko 1.5 twist. She didn’t hear the crowd or think about her ankle. The next time you face an important task, try putting all the thoughts out of your mind, and instead think only about what you are doing.