Psychology, What is... psychology series

What is… Competitiveness

graphic of a head with cogs turning inside

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.

Factors that promote competitiveness

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.

Effects of competitiveness

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.

A number of scales 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.

My own experience

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 any sort of competition.  I would rather see everybody do well as opposed to me doing better than everybody.

I’m quite comfortable with my lack of competitiveness. It’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?

Sources:


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find the rest of the what is… series here, and a collection of psychological tests here.

32 thoughts on “What is… Competitiveness”

  1. This was great! I think I used to be more competitive than I am now which may go along with leading from the ego rather than leading from the heart. My goal these days as I raise my 16 year old daughter is to lead from the heart and let the ego go. It just seems to get in the way.

  2. What a fun topic!! Yeah, I played on the softball team at the reading center. We were playing against the local pizza business. It was a nice spring day. They had me well positioned behind third base. (Sorry, but I don’t know if that’s left field or right field. I’m sure it’s one of those.) Someone at bat hit me a pop fly. I screamed and ran off the field to dodge it. After that point, everyone on the opposing team kept hitting me pop flies all night, and I kept shrieking and running away. It was a brutal defeat for the reading teachers that night.

    That same night–and I’m not making this up–I had to go to the bathroom, so I went into a nearby bathroom area that had wide-open windows. So while I was supposed to be at bat, and everyone was searching for me, I experienced some loud flatulence while [bleep]ing that shot out the windows like a lawnmower and reached the dugout. “She’s in the bathroom!” someone yelled. But I wasn’t even done using the restroom. And then I discovered that my stall was out of toilet paper.

    Flash forward five minutes, I was better situated, but I wanted to hide in the bathroom for the rest of my life and never come out. Rather shamefaced, I emerged, went to the batter’s mound, and struck out with dignity. That was probably the worst night ever. Naturally, I now find it freakin’ hilarious.

    Anyway, about being competitive. I love individual sports or competitions. Like with figure skating, it has less to do with how well your competitors do, and more to do with how well YOU do. I feel the same way about my writing competitions. It’s just about me doing my best, and seeing what will come from it. I mean, I’m not opposed to team competitions, but it is sort of sad to me that one team always loses, and they all feel awful.

      1. Yeah, that was back in, like, 2002, so I was 25. My dad was watching the game from the bleachers and acting all supportive and proud. It was one of the first times I wondered if he was a nice person. (Due to how awful he was to me as a kid, I understandably discredited him as having any worth for a long time.) That was when I started to consider that he could be worth having a relationship with. That idea cemented in 2005 when I went crazy at my next job, and he was always there on the phone.

  3. I’m an absolute zero when it comes to being competitive in anything with others. Really, no interest in being better than anyone in anything. Internally, competing with myself – being better in any way – is where I focus energy. I’m a 10 except after dinner.

  4. I don’t like the notion of competitiveness. I, like you, would rather see everyone do well. And, if I am able to do better in a personal development sense, then I have accomplished something on a personal level.

  5. I’m like you in the fact that I’m not competitive with other people, but I am with myself. I wish to only try to better myself. That is the only competition I need.
    But I do see a lot of competition with regard to high ego’ed males who literally need to be the best at what they do. Usually narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths. They set their bar so high, and they cannot deal with someone who might be better, stronger, more intelligent or faster than them. Because it criticizes their ego.

  6. I have a strange side to me. I cannot compete with any other females. I feel a need to protect any women in my life. But I sometimes (not always) find a competitive streak appears when I am working alongside men. It’s as if I feel the need to prove myself equal or better than them.
    Except the ones I love.It’s men who annoy me who I tend to compete with.

    But for me, I don’t really like the feeling of competitiveness. It leaves me joyless. I look back at what I did and think “how foolish! what was the point of all that?” I don’t get any satisfaction when I act in a competitive way.

    I think I realized long ago that I would rather be part of a harmonious choir than a diva. I am not interested in winning. I am interested in the people around me feeling valued and appreciated.

    1. Perhaps the annoying men are more likely to be sexist and that brings out the competitiveness to show them they’re wrong?

      I like that idea of harmonious choir rather than diva. I would,d prefer the same!

    2. Agreed, if it’s going to be a sex I’m somewhat competitive with it will be the men.
      But that probably comes from growing up with two brothers.
      Men tend to annoy me too at times, and so that competitive edge will come through

  7. We scored 61 competitive and 53 caring

    We don’t like to compete. It feels aggressive and hollow. We are in touch with when losing would result in hard feelings for us and so we don’t play games when we’re in that mood

    We coached youth sports and focused on equal playing time and fun. The competitive set did not appreciate us. It was very socially stressful to stand up for our values. One time, as a thunderstorm rolled in, we pulled our child and a child we were responsible for from the outdoor baseball game because it felt unsafe. The other coaches said, “If you do that, it’s a forfeit and we win.” Deal, we said, and left before the hail hit

    We told our kids when they were young, we will not allow traveling sports. They played for fun and slay played in the band and/or theater: working together to create beauty

  8. I don’t think I’m competitive now but I used to be. When out on our big family picnics, we’d play swingball where winner stayed on – oh my word, Once, I played so hard against all the guys and the next day I could barely move – I was in so much pain!

    I do think men’s competitiveness is due to socialisation, not sure they’re born with it?

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