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Competition in biology, ecology, and sociology, is a contest between organisms, animals, individuals, groups, etc., for territory, a niche, or a location of resources, for resources and goods, mates, for prestige, recognition, awards, or group or social status, for leadership. Competition is the opposite of cooperation. It arises whenever at least two parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared or which is desired individually but not in sharing and cooperation.


Types of competition

We distinguish between adaptive ("good") and maladaptive ("bad") competitiveness. Adaptive competitiveness is characterized by

  • perseverance and determination to rise to the challenge, but bound by an abiding respect for the rules.
  • the ability to feel genuine satisfaction at having put in a worthy effort, even if you lose.
  • the fact that you don’t have to be best at everything, just in the domain they train for.
  • being able to deter gratification.
  • being marked by constant strive for excellence, but not for desperate concerns of rank.

Maladaptive competitiveness on the other hand is characterized by

  • psychological insecurity and displaced urges.
  • a person who cannot accept the losing part of competition.
  • a person who competes when others around are not competing.
  • a person who has to be best at everything.
  • a person who doesn’t stop when the whistle blows.
  • a person who drags others into competition.
  • a person who will resort to cheating when he/she can’t win.

Common Reactions of Winners and Losers

According to the two Hungarian researchers Martá Fülöp and Mihaly Berkics, there are four common reactions for winners and losers.

Winners typically can either show

  • joy, expressed through gleeful enthusiasm and activation
  • satisfaction at your own competence
  • denial of the win as way of social cautiousness. Those players would feel guilty and fearful of the losers’ reactions, like retaliation, so winners would mask their inner joy and not express it openly
  • narcissistic self-enhancement, where the winners would feel a malicious superiority over the losers.

Losers typically can display

  • balance expressed by sadness and disappointment, but with a graceful acceptance of the loss and the promise to be better and give more the next time
  • indifference, denial of loss, where they wouldn’t care, feel tired and bored, and disinvest emotionally
  • avoidance and self-devaluation, where they be their harshest critics themselves, leading to self-hatred, extreme embarrassment, and seeing themselves as liability
  • aggression towards the winner, overcome with envy, anger and hatred of the winner

The most common reaction for winning are by far with three-fourths of the time are the former two, joy and satisfaction about one’s competence. The most common reaction to losing is the first one: sadness.

Neurophysiological Background

There is a neurophysiological reason how well people are dealing with competition. We've certainly seen people who are hyper-competitive and thrive with competition, while others that we consider to be very knowledgable and skilled fail under stress scenarios. And that is what can be called a distinction between "Warriors and Worriers." Warriors see an opportunity to gain something, while worriers are too afraid to lose what they have and won't take the risk and challenge.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences, resolve conflicts, and orchestrate our thoughts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter the provides the chemical jolt in the brain’s “reward center.” Too much dopamine leads to an “overload”. Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) is an enzyme that helps to get rid of excess dopamine in the prefrontal cortex.

Now here is the thing: there are two types of this COMT: one is slower, the other one is faster. 50% of Europeans have an equal number of both, 25% have only the fast one, and the other 25% only the slow one. Latter ones overload faster, the former ones can cope very well with stress. While "fast COMT people" need stress to perform and tend to be good competitors, "slow COMT people" overload and tend to be not good at competitions.

But here is another twist that tells us that competition is not just black & white. "Slow COMT people" can perform very well, when they are in a mastery situation. A mastery situation occurs when there is stress or competition for which they are very well trained, like a pilots who's gone hundreds of times through the same crisis scenario on a simulator. They then tend to outperform the "fast COMT people." In learning situation (like when you have to acquire new knowledge or find creative solutions), the stress is similar for all. "Fast COMT people" then perform best, "slow COMT people" falter.

Gender Differences

We've heard already before that men and women are different in how and whether they compete.[1] Richard Bartle's Player Type matrix shows that killers (the competitive group) only accounts for less than 5% of all players (if this were a mutually exclusive trait and you could be only name your dominant trait like being a killer, but not a socializer, achiever, or explorer). Of those less than 5% killers among the population, nearly none are women. That does not mean that women do not compete, but they enter competitions differently and it depends a lot on the setup as well.

Here is how competition for men works:

  • Men compete, when there is any chance to win. Even a 10% chance of winning an election will make them enter.
  • Best-achieving men in a group may make other, lower-achieving men depressed. They do not lift them up to higher achievements.
  • Men work in groups.

Women on the other hand look at competition this way:

  • Women compete, when there is a high chance to win, because women are better judges of their own capabilities.
  • Best-achieving women serve as “shining light” for other women, they pull lower-achieving women to new, higher levels of achievement.
  • Women work in dyads, which discourage competition but emphasize relationship. Therefore, to enter a competition, women must have a very good reason to sacrifice a relationship. When forced to do, they really feel miserable.
  • During hormonal cycles women and men tend to overload faster, because of already high dopamine levels.

Cultural differences

Different cultures also regard competition differently. The common "Employee of the Month" plaques that you see in the US, would seem very strange in more egalitarian societies like Netherlands, Germany, or Austria. I am from Austria and such a thing would always invite mockery and envy from others, so you don't want that highlighted. In Russia generally people are very suspicious about these types of things. They had the "Hero of Socialist Labour"-title in the past (and now again), and everyone knew that these people where not really the heros: they were just the toughest communist of all, people you'd better avoid.

Generally speaking, Asian cultures tend to prefer group harmony instead of an individual outstanding. Competition would counter this immediately. As a personal experiences I can mention the one hackathon that we had organized and instead of naming first, second, and third place winners, the organizers named the three best ranked teams, but no winner. When competition works When now does competition work? Here are is a short list:

  • in mastery situations
  • in gain-oriented situations and attitudes
  • when the player is in his/her Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF)
  • when players are primed on facing obstacles, and not what they will do when they reached the goal
  • with (situational) anger to a confrontation
  • when there is an even matchup (you actually have a chance to win)
  • when players care about the competitors (competing against your friends, not everyone in the world)
  • when players care about the team
  • in harmony cultures as solo competitors / in other cultures when team members quarrel a lot
  • for introverts

Competition does not work in

  • learning situations
  • prevention-oriented situations and attitudes (unless when not performing means losing points etc.)
  • when teams are too harmonious
  • when creativity is required
  • when the competition is regarded as skewed

Gamification Design Elements

The following gamification design elements foster competition:


Karl M. Kapp quoted in his book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction several studies that mention how competition can wreak havoc with the success in learning.

“More often than not, competitive [learning] environments have a tendency to impede on the learning process[2]. This is in part due to the egocentric behavior that competitive environments often induce, which in turn make people less likely to help one another[3]. Competition has also been shown to have a negative effect on the self-efficacy of learners[4]. This makes players rate themselves and their teammates more harshly, especially when they lose.”

An interesting example of where competition in a work environment kills collaboration is a case mentioned some months ago in Vanity Fair about Microsoft and their "stack ranking:"

“…a management system known as stack ranking — a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.” “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed — every one — cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. ‘If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,’ says a former software developer. ’It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”



  1. Po Bronson, Ashley Merrymen: Top Dog: The Science of Winjning and Losing; Twelve, 2013; pp 84-104
  2. Goodman D.A., & Crouch, J. (1978). Effects of competition on learning. Improving College and University Teaching, 26(2), 130-133
  3. Bryant, B.K. (1977). The effects of the interpersonal context of evaluation on self- and other-enhancement behavior. Child Development, 48(3), 885-892.
  4. Chan, J.Y., & Lam, S. (2008). Effects of competition on students’ self-efficacy in vicarious learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(1), 95-108.