I have been brought up to believe that competition builds character and brings out the best in us. Alfie Kohn, author of No Content: The Case Against Competition, presents an alternative point of view.
[Alfie Kohn] has spent the last few years examining the arguments used to support competition and sorting through the evidence from various disciplines. [Her] research has convinced [her] that these arguments are really myths–that competition is neither necessary nor desirable. In the order of their popularity, here are the four central myths of competition and what the research actually shows.
Myth 1: Competition Is Inevitable
But half a century ago Margaret Mead and her colleagues found that competition was virtually unknown to the Zuni and Iroquois in North America and to the Bathonga of South Africa. Since then, cross-cultural observers have confirmed that our society is the exception rather than the rule. From the Inuit of Canada to the Tangu of New Guinea, from kihbutzniks in lsrael to farmers in Mexico, cooperation is prized and competition generally avoided. Working with seven to nine-year olds, psychologists Spencer Kagan and Millard Madsen found that Mexican children quickly figured out how to cooperate on an experimental game, while those from the United States could not. In fact, 78 percent of the Anglo-American children took another child’s toy away “for apparently no other reason than to prevent the other child from having it.” Mexican children did so only half as often.
Myth 2: Competition Keeps Productivity High and is Necessary for Excellence
Which method is more productive–competition or cooperation? The answer will take many by surprise. David and Roger Johnson, brothers who are educators at the University of Minnesota, recently analyzed 122 studies of classroom achievement conducted from 1924 to 1980. Sixty five found that cooperation promotes higher achievement than competition, eight found the reverse, and thirty-six found no significant difference. One after another, researchers across the country have come to the same conclusion: Children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle.
In the late 70s Robert Helmreich of the University of Texas at Austin and his colleagues decided to see whether this was also true in the “real world.” They gave personality tests to 103 male scientists and found that those whose work was cited most often by their colleagues (a reasonable measure of achievement) were those who enjoyed challenging tasks but were not personally competitive. To make sure this surprising result wasn’t a fluke, Helmreich conducted similar studies on businessmen, academic psychologists, undergraduates, pilots, and airline reservation agents. Each time he found the same thing: a significant negative correlation between competitiveness and achievement.
Myth 3: Recreation Requires Competition
…Research in nonrecreational settings clearly shows that those who are not successful in initial competitions continue to perform poorly and drop out when given the chance.
Even the youngest children get the message, as is obvious from the game of musical chairs, an American classic. X number of players scramble for X minus-one chairs when the music stops. Each round eliminates one player and one chair until finally a single triumphant winner emerges. Everyone else has lost and been excluded from play for varying lengths of time. This is our idea of how children should have fun.
Myth 4: Competition Builds Character
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of competition is the way it poisons our personal relationships. In the workplace, you may be friendly with your colleagues, but there is a guardedness, a part of the self held in reserve because you may be rivals tomorrow. Competition disrupts families, making the quest for approval a race and turning love into a kind of trophy. On the playing field it is difficult to maintain positive feelings about someone who is trying to make you lose. And in our schools students are taught to regard each other not as potential collaborators, but rather as opponents, rivals, obstacles to their own success. Small wonder that the hostility inherent in competition often erupts into outright aggression.
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