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The Competition

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The morality of Competition

Summary about competition often take the form of: Is competition good or bad? This is indeed the way the main contemporary researchers deal with the problem. Is competition good? They answer: No. Is it bad? Yes, in every way, bad psychologically, developmentally, physically, socially, educationally, and productively. But is this really the case? Surely competition is sometimes bad, but is it always bad, or always as bad as it sometimes is? Consider the following vignette:

Jane and Tom lived in a small town. Married with five children, Tom was a carpenter and Jane a homemaker. When Tom lost his job and couldn't find another, Jane offered to go to work to make ends meet. Tom felt threatened. At that time, the carpenter's union was under a federal court mandate and offered an apprenticeship program to women. Jane decided to sign up. After some initial adjustment, and with the encouragement of a woman instructor who had pioneered the entrance of women into the trades, she learned quickly and in a couple of years became a master carpenter, a higher skill level than her husband's.

Jane felt guilty about making her husband look bad. But she also knew that without her help her family would have nothing but temporary unemployment insurance to live on. She was also proud of her accomplishment. She became angry when she thought that her husband had for so long belittled her, and enjoyed now demonstrating to him that she could work as well as he, and even rise to a skill level that he had never reached in ten years in the trades. This increased her motivation to excel.

Though Tom grudgingly admired his wife's determination, and appreciated the needed income, for the most part he took the whole thing badly. Even after he got another job, the fact that his wife had done so well roiled him. Tom began drinking heavily, and would come home and fly into a rage about whether the house was neat or the kids' clothes were clean. After a couple of scenes where he became physically abusive, he moved out.

What do we think of this story? Competition has some general characteristics. Competition is involved when, whatever else one wants, it is part of one's motivation and satisfaction to equal or surpass others. That having been said, there is a broad range of types of competition which differ from one another in their psychology and moral significance. In the case of Jane, several things make us admire her:

First, her predominant aim was to realize her own potential, to develop her abilities and prove her capacity to carry out difficult projects. Her satisfaction in superseding her husband was secondary, something that gave an extra edge and zest to her main purpose.

Second, mixed with her motives to develop her abilities and compete, was the stronger motive to serve, nurture, and protect her family.

Third, her competitiveness was colored by whom she was competing against, a person who did not try to justify his position of leader and breadwinner on the basis of his competence and conscientiousness. Rather, he tried to hang onto his superior position through intimidation and mockery.

Fourth, her competitiveness was also colored by the fact that she demonstrated far more care for others than did her husband-- who abandoned the family completely.

These are not just four disparate points. What underlies them is a sense of legitimate hierarchy. We accord respect, prerogative, and status to those who have genuine abilities, and not to those who cling to their privileged positions despite their mediocrity, and to those who use their abilities to enhance and serve the social group of which they are a part, and not those who achieve status to earn the right to be contemptuous toward those they've beaten.

Is competition good? Yes, when it displaces those who do not deserve status and authority with those who do. But, I think, there is much more than this to the understanding of what competition is. In the story above, most people would side with the wife. But suppose that the husband is genuinely incapable of coping with his displacement from a traditional male role of chief breadwinner. Suppose that he becomes dejected, ridden with guilt at abandoning his family, but, try as he might, simply cannot adjust to the redefinition of roles. He fights with his bosses and gets fired repeatedly. He finally suffers debilitating psychiatric problems and commits suicide.

Somehow, this way of ending the story tilts the balance back the other way, and causes at least some people to ask whether the wife's job and career, and even the welfare of the family, were worth it. In evaluating competition, we worry about more than that each person should be able to assume a rightful position in a legitimate hierarchy. We also worry how deeply winning and losing affects the individual. We tend to favor winners who have fervent life-long aspirations over winners who compete out of whim. And we are sympathetic to those whose sense that life is worthwhile is devastated by the loss, and not those for whom it matters little.

Some kinds of competition involve losses that are devastating to one person's dignity and winning which is trivial to another's. These are morally condemnable. Other kinds pit those who desperately need to win to maintain their self-respect against one another. These are tragic. But others harm neither party and lead to increases in self-esteem for both. Certain kinds of rivalry fit this bill.

Shakespeare and Marlowe were rival playwrights. Early in his career, Shakespeare wrote comedies, while Marlowe was writing tragedies. Shakespeare was appalled to discovery that people considered Marlowe to be more important because tragedy was thought to be a more profound form of drama. So, Shakespeare sought to demonstrate that he could indeed write tragedies, and better ones than Marlowe. This competitive effort drove his career.

This is competition as rivalry. In rivalry, at least in some of its versions, the performance of each party sets a successively higher standard which challenged the other to meet or exceed it. Such was the relation between Galileo and Tycho Brahe, or between Einstein and Hilbert.

Rivalry is a kind of competition where the level of competence of competitors is close, and where being bested leads to efforts to raise one's own level of competence. Differences that are so large that people cannot hope to bridge them, do not generate rivalry, but rather competition of a different sort, filled with frustration, rage, and hatred, or the replacement of competition entirely by deference, emulation, defeatism, or avoidance.

These examples ought to give some sense of the complexity of competition. To summarize: The moral value of competition depends on whether it is an effort to win by doing better than others vs. to win by making the other do worse. It depends upon whether the competitor wants to win for purely selfish reasons or whether the competitor wants to rearrange hierarchical order in a way that is beneficial for those within it. It depends upon a kind of moral balance between how much winning means to the winner vs. how much losing means to the loser. And it depends on whether competitors are closely matched.

The complexity hardly stops here. But seeing how the way we think about competition is affected by differences in these dimensions is enough to raise doubt about whether there is such a thing as competition per se, and so to obviate the question of whether competition per se is good, or competition per se is bad. And that is to raise doubts about whether almost all the research done on competition has any value. This research, by Deutsch (1949a, 1949b, 1985), Johnson and Johnson and popularized by Alfie Kohn (1986), is research on competition per se, and aims at voting it up or down. And the results of this research, summarized in Johnson and Johnson's meta-analysis of 521 studies (Johnson, Johnson, Maruyama, 1983; Johnson, Marayama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1986), is to vote it down.

If competition is complex, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes in between, how is it that researchers have demonstrated its overwhelming and perennial badness? How has the complexity of competition gotten lost? Or, to ask a sharper question, if virtually every cooperative egalitarian project in this century has foundered and failed--from workers and consumer coops, to communist regimes, to Israeli kibbutzim, to American communes--how is it that research can demonstrate definitively that egalitarian cooperation is a superior system and that competitive systems are far inferior? The answer lies in how the experiments are designed. I would like to mention here just two design biases.

First, in the typical experiment, there is a competitive and cooperative reward system. Of course. The cooperative reward system is as cooperative as possible; it is always equal reward. And the competitive reward system is as competitive as possible, usually either zero-sum or winner-takes-all. Experimenters justify the use of these extreme exemplars of cooperation and competition is justified by the assumption that moderate competition and moderate cooperation are essentially the same as extreme cooperation and extreme competition, only less so.

But do we really believe that all forms of competition--for example a war and a children's game of hopscotch--are all psychologically similar? People respond to extreme competitive conditions, where there are big gaps between winners and losers, very differently from the way that they respond to moderate competition, where the gap is small. When gaps between winners and losers are so large that losers cannot envision their being bridged, the possibility for friendly rivalry disappears. And the severity of the drubbing suffered by those who lose affects the way they think about themselves. It convinces them not just that they lost, but that they are losers. The threat to one's identity generates a high degree of frustration and aggression, and desperate efforts, at least in the short term, to turn the situation around.

In the research that I and co-authors conducted (Gordon, Welch, Offringa, & Katz, submitted for publication) which was a replication of one of the studies from Deutsch's lab, this is exactly what we saw. The participants who realized that they were losing became hostile and aggressive, and flailed about erratically. The poor performance of losers in winner-takes-all or zero-sum conditions is attributable to this high state of arousal that extreme competition generates, and not to competition itself.

After over twenty years of research, Johnson and Johnson (Stanne, Johnson & Johnson, 1999) at least have implicitly conceded this point and have introduced the category of "appropriate competition." And, not surprisingly, their recent study finds that appropriate competition is as good as cooperation, that it is only in extreme competition that performance suffers. This is precisely what we found.

A second problem with the research on cooperation and competition is that the experiments are biased in that the emergence of mutual concern is allowed only in the condition of egalitarian rewards. Let me explain: The research tradition in industrial psychology originating in the Hawthorne experiments shows that workers' morale and productivity were raised when management demonstrated concern and interest in them (Roethlisberger, 1968). As most of you know, the "Hawthorne effect" was discovered by accident: management had sought to understand the effect of better working conditions--increased lighting, more frequent breaks-- on worker productivity. When these improvements were introduced, productivity increased. Then management ended the experiment and things returned to the way they were. And productivity also increased. The researchers, initially baffled by this, at last concluded that increased productivity was not due to the improvement in work conditions, but to the fact that management had apparently demonstrated concern for workers' conditions. When management demonstrated this concern, workers responded by working harder, and also manifested high morale and group identification.

Now the equal rewards condition, in the hundreds of studies on cooperation and competition, also generates mutual concern. Members of groups whose work is rewarded equally of course become intensely interested in how well their co-members are doing. After all, the better one's co-member does, the more reward one gets oneself. But this mutual concern also, as above, generates a sense of shared group identity, a "Hawthorne effect."

Inasmuch as both Hawthorne groups and equal reward experimental groups generate high morale and group identification, the question is: what is causing these? Is it the egalitarian rewards, as Deutsch and Johnson and Johnson claim? Or is it the manifest concern? It could not be egalitarian reward: for groups with, and groups without, egalitarian reward have high morale, productivity, and group identification. The cause of high morale and group identity must be what these two kinds of groups have in common, not wherein they differ. And what they have in common is manifest mutual concern.

And this indeed squares with other sorts of evidence. The high morale and group identification of workers in Asian corporations does not depend upon egalitarian rewards, equal authority, or the absence of prerogatives. The high elan and esprit de corps of successful armies do not depend upon the abolition of rank.

By confounding mutual concern with equal rewards, these researchers conclude that only under conditions of egalitarian reward can participants have high morale, identify with the group, and dedicate themselves to its success. It may not be, however, that mutual concern works best in egalitarian groups. It may be instead that the concern and care of a leader from a higher social stratum is more important in generating a valued group identity than the concern and care that group members on the same level have for one another.

To sum up: In these and others ways, the researchers in the field of cooperative and competitive rewards bias their findings toward radical egalitarianism, and away from competition. They equate all competition with extreme competition, and conclude that it is bad, and all cooperation with strict equality, and conclude that it is best. This makes the test of competition depend on its most stressful and identity-threatening manifestation and excludes the possibility of competition as zestful rivalry. And it forces the choice of radical equality by presenting no other reward condition in which the psychology of mutual concern can manifest itself.

Is competition, then, good or bad? The answer is: it depends. Competition is good when it displaces those who hold positions of privilege and authority who have neither talent, conscientiousness nor social responsibility. Competition is also good when it plants a grain of discontent in the self-satisfied and self-involved, when it teaches people to manage success and failure and to be realistic in their aspirations. Those who condemn all competition as bad present us with the least attractive exemplars, competition as a ruthless drive for personal power by people who have contempt for those who are bested. They miss the genius of social arrangements that restrain competition within systems of enforced rules so that winning depends upon real talent, and not deceit or force, and in which success is contingent on serving the public. Such a rule-bound system of competition, skillfully designed to produce public benefits, is the explicit basis for the design of the American Constitutional system. The intricate system of devices, and the rationale for them, laid out, for example, in the Federalist Papers, still rewards study.

If the foregoing provides a somewhat better understanding of competition, we may ask what relation it has to the psychology of moral development. In Kohlberg's schema, competition never appears. The moral dilemmas have to do with people who want incompatible ends, or where what the individual wants is in conflict with the maintenance of a good social system, but none deals with situations where what an individual wants is superiority over another individual. But this exclusion narrows moral conceptualization in a way that makes it irrelevant to some very important moral concerns. Chief among these is, of course, the largest political and moral issue of the past 150 years, the question of socialism.

In one superficial sense, the evaluation of competition is to be made on the basis of that social good or bad that comes of it: Does competition eliminate corruption, create a social order which is legitimate and rational. Does it increase productivity? Does it tend to protect human rights? But we might also ask not just what value comes from competition, but what of value is in competition: Why is it so important to people to know where they stand relative to others? Why does equaling or exceeding a standard or achievement set by others so engage motivation? In short: how do we value the drama of competition relative to other forms of social interaction?

I do not believe that the research that has been done on cooperation and competition begins to answer these questions. Nor does the current understanding of socio-moral development help shed light on them. What we do know is that those who would build social systems that does away with competition do not always deliver as promised. We have learned in this century that enormous efforts to build societies on the basis of cooperation and social solidarity has led to tyranny, failure, oppression, and mass murder from which the world is only now beginning to recover.…...

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...Discussion of the European Union’s competition policies Since the turn of the century, Europe’s economic prosperity has rested upon the European Union’s competition policies and regulation of abusive market structures and anti-competitive behaviour. The last fifty years have illustrated that open markets foster innovation and efficiency, while delivering Europeans higher quality products and services at lower prices. This will ultimately lead to Europe’s economic growth, despite the possible infiltration of foreign low cost, low skill producing firms. Suggesting Europe’s future shift towards a knowledge based economy with a focus upon the development and sharing of new technologies (Bannerman, 2002). The following paper will examine the EU’s role and approach towards competition policy with a focus on the economic implications. Abusive market structures and anti-competitive behaviour have been battled by the EU to preserve competition, fearing that cartels will exploit their pricing power to damage consumers. The magnitude of the damage is directly correlated to the elasticity of demand, where a strongly inelastic customer would suffer due to the unavailability of substitutes. Furthermore, anti-competitive market structures create barriers to entry through the ownership of resources, economies of scale, and predatory pricing that stunt future innovation and efficiency. To ensure this competitive environment, the EU......

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