In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is competitiveness.
From an evolutionary perspective, competition is hardwired into us; living beings need to compete for limited resources in order to survive. For most of us, though, that isn’t too much of an issue, and the competitive desire to do better than others is focused on tasks that aren’t for basic survival purposes. Competitiveness is sometimes described as a personality trait, but it’s not as stable over time as many other traits.
There are certain external factors that can promote competitiveness. Some of these are based on the individuals involved, while others relate to the particular situation. Personal factors include the importance of the task to the individual, knowing the competitor personally, or having a similar skill level to the competitor.
Situational factors include having an audience, extreme ranking (i.e. near the very top or very bottom of the field), whether the competitive field is wide or narrow, and incentive structures that may be present.
Males appear to be more competitive than females, but it’s not known if this is a direct relationship or if it’s mediated by some other factors. I would guess that it’s a product of socialization rather than some innate characteristic.
Competitiveness can be a good thing or a bad thing. On the positive side, it can increase motivation and enjoyment. One theoretical model describes a personal-development competitive attitude subtype that emphasizes personal growth, mastery, and doing one’s best rather than knocking down competitors.
On the negative side, competitiveness can lead to feelings of inadequacy and burnout. When taken to hypercompetitive extremes, it may be used to justify bad behaviour for the sake of winning at all costs. Competitors start to be viewed as enemies. Hypercompetitive attitudes are associated with a whole slew of negative effects, including levels of high neuroticism, aggression, dominance, mistrust, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Yikes!
Low competitiveness has been linked to decreased job dedication and lower performance in workplaces with competitive environments. A study of female students found that a high level of competitiveness was associated with greater body dissatisfaction.
There are a number of scales that have been developed to measure competitiveness, but most of the ones I found were buried in journal papers. However, I did find this Competitiveness & Caring Scale from the Compassionate Mind Foundation.
I’ve never been very competitive, I wasn’t competitive at all in sports, and it really made no difference to me if our team won or lost. For much of my life, I think I leaned towards a personal development competitive attitude – I wanted to do well for my own sake, and be satisfied that I’d done my best, whatever that might happen to be in relationship to others. I probably care even less now than I used to about being competitive in any sense. I would rather see everybody do well as opposed to me doing better than everybody.
I’m quite comfortable with my lack of competitiveness, and it’s something that’s remained quite stable throughout my life, so I really don’t know any different. I see plenty of people who are competitive, and it’s always kind of puzzled me. While I can conceptualize it intellectually, it all seems rather exhausting.
How competitive are you?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- Garcia et al., S.M. (2013). The psychology of competition: A social comparison perspective. Perspective on Psychological Science.
- Good Therapy: Competitiveness
- Orosz, G. (2018). The four facets of competition: The development of the Multidimensional Competitiveness Orientation Inventory. Frontiers in Psychology.