Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Competitive Learning System-Drawbacks, Pt. 2

Drawbacks of the Competitive System
First, to understand how easily human behavior can be negatively influenced by an underlying system, consider a famous psychology experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. In this experiment Zimbardo set up a prison environment in a basement of one of the university buildings, then randomly divided his students into roles of prisoner or guard. The experiment, designed to last for two weeks, was terminated before the end of the first week due to the severity of the results, which included radical behavioral changes in virtually all of the participants. Within several days the student/guards began abusing the “prisoners”, who rapidly succumbed to a victim mentality. This experiment clearly demonstrated how profoundly a system can affect the behavior of the people within it, even to the point of distorting their usual personalities, behaviors and previously held values. In the following section, I show how the competitive system produces specific negative behavioral effects in ordinary people.

Dampens Motivation
Initially, competition does produce motivation as we strive to be winners, but mounting losses can quickly undermine that motivation. If losing continues, staying motivated can be a Herculean task. Many sports psychologists are now saying that to maintain competitive motivation, participants need to win two out of every three contests they enter. Because most people don’t win anywhere close to that percentage, motivation frequently wanes; after a certain percentage of “failure”, resignation often occurs. This is why so many people drift from one activity to another, looking for a place where they can be successful — where they can be winners.

There’s another disturbing aspect to a competitive approach. Researchers have found that we only stay motivated if the rewards increase. After a period of time, if the rewards don’t increase, motivation levels tend to decrease. This is a common phenomenon in professional sports. How often have we heard of athletes who are already making millions of dollars wanting to renegotiate their contract because they feel they are worth more? If they don’t get their way, their motivation drops.

Lowers Performance Levels
Contrary to popular belief, competition actually lowers performance levels for almost all participants. Yes, competition can induce motivation in many instances. But as I have noted, much of this motivation involves fear of the consequences of failure. Psychologist Alfie Kohn, who has long explored the dynamics of competition, noted, “We are carefully trained to believe that a competitive arrangement results in superior performance.” From his research, Kohn concluded: “Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.” The pressure of needing to win makes people tighten up, which universally lowers performance levels.

In a study completed in 1981, researchers David and Roger Johnson and colleagues published a paper analyzing the results of 122 different studies that examined whether competitive or cooperative environments induced higher performance. The results were eye opening: Over half the studies indicated that cooperation produced higher performance levels, more than one-third showed no statistical advantage to either cooperation or competition, and less than 10 percent showed a competitive environment producing higher performance. Philosopher John McMurtry concluded: “The pursuit of victory works to reduce the chance for excellence in the true performance of the sport. It tends to distract our attention from excellence of performance by rendering it subservient to emerging victorious.”

Diminishes Enjoyment
Competition is most enjoyable for winners. For “losers” it is rarely exciting or enjoyable. This is especially true when we consistently lose more than we win, which is the case for the majority. I have never met anyone who didn’t like winning, nor met anyone who enjoys losing! We see this in fans living and dying with their team; ecstatic when their team is winning, and angry or depressed when they are losing.

The “thrill of victory” adrenaline rush can become an addiction. Many people compete in one way or another for their whole lives, seeking the high that winning gives them. It makes them feel good about themselves; makes them feel they matter and are worthy. Many people use competition as a means to get approval and self-esteem. But the downside to chronic competition is that when winning is over-emphasized, our perspective becomes skewed and our character often becomes unbalanced. We lose sight of other more important values, like cooperation, trust, compassion, and the development of true human maturity.

Raises Stress Levels
People today are under a great deal of stress, whether from work, school, family, sports, relationships, or from having to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Since 9/11, stress levels have increased in a large segment of the American population, across all socioeconomic groups. The negative effects of stress include increased physical and emotional tension, uncertainty and fear, a weakening of the immune system, decline in health, and less overall enjoyment of life. Must we add to the unavoidable stresses of life the unnecessary burden of ubiquitous competition?

There is pressure and tension all around us, and we accept it as natural or at least inevitable. But are we like the proverbial frog that, when put into water that is slowly heated to a boil, calmly lets itself be cooked to death?

Undermines Healthy Character Development
One of the main benefits attributed to competition by supporters is that it develops character. But it can be equally shown that competition undermines, weakens and retards the development of real character, or human maturity. In a competitive environment we are taught to view others as adversaries, to find their weaknesses and exploit them, and even to use psychological tactics and strategies to distract and destabilize them. A competitive system often breeds hostile, mistrustful relationships between opponents, and a hostile environment. Competition can even turn friends into adversaries.

The “best” competitors show no compassion to their opponents; compassion could mean the difference between winning and losing! We must destroy their confidence, or they might defeat us! This approach pays dividends in the present, and in future encounters with our defeated opponents, over whom we establish a psychological advantage. In my forty-five years of experience in sports, I’ve seen this strategy taught, with no malice of intent, by a majority of successful coaches. These coaches believe that it is essential to instill this “competitive attitude” or “killer instinct” in people who are going to be winners at a high level.

A competitive mindset keeps many from developing admirable character traits, not to mention fulfilling their highest potential. Given the misbehavior we often see in competitions of various kinds, it might even be argued that the competitive mindset is a form of temporary insanity. It is much easier to maintain high ideals and play by the rules when we are winning. Once we start losing, however, the possibility that we will resort to negative alternatives to increase our chances of winning — such as overly aggressive behavior, intimidation, and cheating —increases. You have to win to be seen as a winner, and a certain percentage of people will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Highly competitive environments encourage a win-at-all-cost mentality that is a major contributor to destabilizing character development.

Conversely, those who don’t do well in competitive environments may end up avoiding all competition, which can also weaken character. Chronic failure undermines self-confidence, lowers self-esteem, produces feelings of inferiority, stimulates frustration, anger, resignation, sadness, and even depression and despair. Being told it is okay to lose doesn’t change this; we all know “losers” are looked down on in our competitive culture.

In a competitive system, the only way feelings of inferiority can be avoided is by winning enough to balance out the losses. This is problematic. Because by design the competitive system creates far more losers than winners, most people never win enough to balance out their losses. Feelings of inferiority stay with them, often for a lifetime. Feeling inferior may provide motivation to improve and excel, but in the long run it doesn’t bring out the best in us, nor help us to be our best.

I have seen the results of this cycle manifested with tennis players and other athletes. People who have lost a lot need to balance out their feelings of inferiority in order to feel good about themselves. A corrosive striving for superiority over others often arises from these experiences. Some go from one competitive activity to another, looking for a place where they can be the winners. The truth is that, in a competitive system, losers need to defeat somebody and exact their revenge in order to feel better about themselves. It takes a long time and a lot of positive feedback to change this dynamic. In a competitive environment, it’s extremely difficult to make up the deficit.

Finally, the more success we achieve in a competitive environment, the more people want to beat us. Like Old West gunfighters, we have to be constantly on the alert, looking over our shoulder to make sure no one is gunning for us. It’s easy to get a little edgy and make poor decisions in this environment. Emotions such as fear and anger can motivate us, but they don’t serve us well as dominant character traits. Yet these emotions tend to be forged in competitive environments, and through premature competition.

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