The Case Against Competition

"Under our present system we generally find that when children first come to school they are more prepared for competition than for co-operation: and the training in competition continues throughout their schooldays. This is a disaster for the child: and it is hardly less of a disaster if he goes ahead and strains to beat the other children than if he falls behind and gives up the struggle. In both cases he will be primarily interested in himself. It will not be his aim to contribute and help, but to secure what he can for himself. . . ."

--Alfred Adler, psychologist (1868-1937)


Recently, my younger son and I were watching one of those popular "family" sports movies. The plot was predictable: a group of kids who are very poor athletes join together under the leadership of a reluctant adult. Ultimately, they all learn to care deeply for each other and, of course, win the championship. I was struck once again with the constant, powerful messages popular culture offers us about winning and losing. In one of the film's flashbacks, the main adult character recalls a moment from childhood that shaped his life. As part of a peewee hockey team, he is chosen to take a penalty shot on goal. If he makes it, his team wins the championship. His coach emphasizes winning as the only acceptable goal for the team and offers these words of inspiration: "It's not worth playing if you don't win." This brief scene highlights the film's focus on how destructive and debilitating that attitude was for this young man's life. At times, the story line offers a variety of alternative attitudes: "do your best," "have fun," "try hard."

At the end of the film, this same young man is coaching his own peewee team against his old coach's team. He wants desperately to prove that the advice he was given about winning was inappropriate. Sadly, the way he does this is by putting another child in exactly the same position. The peewee hockey player has to go out on that ice, compete one-on-one with a stronger opponent, and try his best to make the goal. As the show concludes, the high drama of that moment results in the goal being made. The triumphant young player glides down the ice pumping his arm in the all-too-familiar body language of victory. The evil old coach is left sad, defeated, and alone on the sidelines.

So, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, the ultimate message of this--and most--family entertainment is . . . it's always better to win! We live in a society that places a high value on competing and ultimately winning. If we do not share this value, we face a struggle to find inspiration for our children (and ourselves) to act in cooperative rather than competitive ways.

Myriad studies by a variety of anthropologists and other researchers demonstrate how children and adults from various cultures often choose cooperation over competition. In contrast, children and adults raised in the United States usually choose competition. One of the greatest students of world culture, Margaret Mead, in her 1937 classic Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples, concludes: " . . . competitive and cooperative behavior on the part of individual members of a society is fundamentally conditioned by the total emphasis of that society." People who favor competition often insist that it is a natural, inbred response to most human interaction. Mead and many others disagree.

Educational psychologist Alfie Kohn explores these cultural contradictions in one of his early books, No Contest (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986). Kohn builds upon the basic idea that there are three ways of achieving one's goals: competitively (working against others); cooperatively (working with others); and independently (working without regard to others). Clearly, the United States has championed competition as the most effective--indeed, the most "natural"--way to succeed. "That most of us consistently fail to consider alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization," claims Kohn, who asserts that the urge to compete is cultural, and carefully refutes the notion of psychological and biological foundations for competition.

The work of many academics and scientists supports Kohn's thesis, and can help all of us understand that a shift from competition to other approaches is possible, but not without adjusting our basic understanding of the world to see the coexistent possibilities. This vision provides a key element in helping our children understand the pitfalls of competition. Most current popular culture offers very few alternatives to competition. Scholarly books on the topic bolster our understanding of the benefits of a cooperative mentality, and provide a scientific foundation for the case against competition: the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela are replete with compelling examples of successful nonviolent responses to aggression, which at the minimum provide food for thought about whether competition is part of nature or nurture. But despite historical anecdotes--powerful as they are--most parents require examples of cooperation that are realistic and applicable to daily life.  

Stories are powerful tools for providing alternatives to competition. In his study of world myths and legends, the late Dr. Joseph Campbell determined that there are perhaps seven or eight major themes in most of the world's folk tales, legends, and stories. Sadly, many of those themes focus on competition. A few, however, suggest cooperation as the means to a successful conclusion. Unsurprisingly, studies of cultural myths suggest that societies focused mostly on their cooperative mythology are much more peaceful overall.

As a storyteller for the past twenty years, I have had some personal experience with the academic and scientific information provided by Campbell, Kohn, and Mead. In the early 1980s, I began working with Hmong storytellers to gather and publish cultural tales that have been told for thousands of years. Many Hmong stories show that competition does not necessarily achieve the desired end. One excellent example is the story Koog thiab liab ("The grasshoppers and the monkeys"):

Once there was a very large group of tiny grasshoppers living in the plains. These grasshoppers never bothered anyone; they just did what grasshoppers do. Not far away, in the forest, there lived a small group of very large monkeys.

One day, a group of monkeys left the forest and went into the plains to see what they could see. What they saw, of course, was all the grasshoppers hopping around. The monkeys had never seen anything like these grasshoppers, so they stared and kicked and poked at them. Then a group of these huge monkeys stood around a group of the little, tiny grasshoppers and said, "Do you want to fight?"

The grasshoppers looked up at these giant monkeys, then they talked among themselves. Finally the grasshoppers said, "All right, we will fight you, but we have to wait until grandmother brings her red blanket."

The monkeys looked at the grasshoppers, then at each other, then they laughed. "What does your grandmother have to do with this?" they asked. "Will you fight with us or not?"

"Oh, yes," said the grasshoppers, "we will fight you, but we have to wait until grandmother brings her red blanket."

The two groups went back and forth like this for a long time, until the monkeys finally decided it wasn't worth the trouble, and went back into the forest. Before they got there, the sun went down, it got dark, and the monkeys lost their way. They decided they would spend the night on the plain, sleeping on the ground, and in the morning they would go back to their trees. The monkeys tried to sleep, but the ground was cold and rocky and hard, and they tossed and turned all night.

Meanwhile, all the grasshoppers gathered together in the grass and slept peacefully through the night. First thing in the morning, the sun came up and the sky turned bright red. The first rays of the sun came and touched those grasshoppers. As they warmed up, they started to hop. First there were just a few; then there were more; then there were thousands; then there were millions of grasshoppers, all hopping right toward where those monkeys were sleeping on the ground.

When the monkeys woke up, they were stiff and tired. As they stretched, they turned and looked across the plains. All they could see was millions of grasshoppers coming right toward them. There were many more grasshoppers than they could possibly fight. All the monkeys could do was turn, run back to the forest and back up into their trees. The monkeys never went back into the plains and they never bothered the grasshoppers again.

When the monkeys were gone, the grasshoppers stopped hopping. They turned toward the sun and said, "Thank you, Grandmother, for bringing your red blanket and making the grasshoppers stronger than the monkeys."

It's interesting to note that traditional Hmong problem solving parallels this story's theme almost exactly. There is no right or wrong; no winner or loser in the process of conflict resolution. The goal is to find a way to solve the problem that neither side has thought of yet. This requires cooperation on a high level. In the study Hmong Traditional Problem Solving (Antioch University, 1995 Master's Thesis) Chu Yongyuan Wu sums up the essence and value of this process:

"The Hmong have used this problem-solving in the past and it has worked for them and it is still working now. In mediation cases, the disputants have the opportunity to work out their problems face-to-face with mediators' assistance. They get the chance to brainstorm for their own resolutions and make their own decisions. The disputants do not have to face a penalty, be thrown in jail, or have their name inscribed in criminal records. When the case is resolved, they celebrate and return to their normal lives as if the problem had never existed."  

This process exists in practice beyond the confines of tradition or academic studies. As the Director of Conflict Resolution Services in St. Paul, Chu Wu and his colleagues use this cooperative type of problem-solving every day. A recent example includes the KQRS radio apology for inappropriate comments made by on-air personalities about Hmong people. In a culture that develops images of collaboration even in their folk tales, cooperation persists as a valuable skill to be developed at an early age and to be applied in situations never imagined in the villages of Laos.

As adults, we tend to think that reaching consensus is a difficult (if not impossible) task. Our form of government clearly teaches us how to use and accept majority rule and even the art of compromise. When it comes to consensus, though, most Americans draw an experiential blank: we've rarely experienced it, hardly understand it, and assume it's an ideal that can never be achieved. Consensus requires a great deal of time and energy, and there is no question that it's often difficult--painstakingly so. But perhaps the reason we consider consensus nearly impossible is that we seldom pay attention to those models of consensus that we do have available to us. As we face an uncertain future, our very survival may depend on learning and practicing these skills.


A great many writers, thinkers, pundits, and powers-that-be have publicly theorized and discussed the potential ramifications of the Y2K (Year 2000) crisis we may face next year. Many professionals have predicted a fault in computer dating abilities that may lead to catastrophe on January 1, 2000. According to theory, the most critical computer systems controlling most major functions in our society will not be able to read a date starting with "20" instead of "19." When this happens, everything from electricity in our homes to international air travel may cease functioning. In the handbook "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide" (Utne Reader Books, 1998), this crisis is described as an event unlike any in recorded history. This will be a "failure of complex systems," and any solutions "require new collaborations." The Utne booklet leads off with an essay by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers of The Berkana Institute, Provo, Utah. They propose that previous governmental approaches to crisis have involved secrecy, stockpiling, and competition. Simply consider the rush to build bomb shelters in the 1950s; the flight to hippie communes in the 1960s; and the emergence of isolated paramilitary or religious compounds over the past twenty years. These responses to previous doomsday scenarios were based on competition for resources, isolation from society, and a survivalist mentality.

In their recipe for surviving the Y2K crisis, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers argue that cooperation must be explored as the most effective way to approach this looming danger: "They require collaboration, participation, openness and inclusion. These new systems' problems force us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, secrecy, and competition."

How do those of us so culturally immersed in competition learn these cooperative skills? Perhaps the most expedient pathway may be through watching our children. Children learn and use these skills very easily, but that we tend to dismiss rather than reinforce them. The reasons we do so are complex and astonishing. I have observed that most children involved in "free" play (as opposed to organized team activities) are very skilled at cooperation and consensus, generally because they have a mutual goal they wish to achieve. As adults, we might observe or even comment on these skills, but we do not take them seriously because they involve "play," which we tend to exclude from the realm of "real life." Many experts, however, describe play as "the work of children," and thus the very essence of "real life" for them. I am convinced that if we can reinforce the cooperative skills we observe in children, we will prepare them to be much more effective problem solvers.

I recall an experience from the nursery school one of my sons attended. From their first days together, these three- and four-years-olds are taught creative, cooperative problem-solving. This practice came to light one day when my son came home from school and announced that he had "really good ideas for solving problems." He explained how this group of twenty-five children and two teachers coped with the inevitable conflicts that arose in the class. The first job of any member was to point out problems they saw. If they saw two children fighting over a toy, their job was to tell everyone else in the room, "We've got a problem over here!" At that point, everyone stood around the two people who were fighting. This action resulted in two very powerful effects upon the competition for the toy. First, it was a clear indication that the rest of the group thought the problem needed to be solved. Second, it communicated unmistakably to the two children involved that others had a stake in their conflict and could help them resolve it.  

Having encircled the two who were fighting, the collective's task became to brainstorm solutions. No one was cheering, choosing sides, or egging on the contestants. Everyone was there to help--and help took the form of "good ideas." Of course, three- and four-year-olds can come up with all kinds of good ideas. Not all of them are effective, or even reasonable, but the good-faith offerings provide combatants a reasonable way out of their conflict. Cooperation and mutual problem-solving became desirable to the children because their ultimate goal was to play, and the problem interrupted the realization of that goal. Cooperation allowed the play to continue--a benefit to all.

The principles that render cooperation more effective than competition in resolving a problem remain just as powerful when applied to the efforts of production and creativity. Alfie Kohn writes in No Contest, "Consider the question of artistic creativity. The little research that has been done suggests that competition is just as unhelpful here as it is in promoting creative problem-solving." Despite the fact that so many artists are forced to compete for awards, grants, recognition, or even the time they need to do their art, there is no scientific (and very little anecdotal) evidence that such competition improves the quality of art in our culture.

As with free play and games, so with theatre: the way we achieve cooperation is through agreement on a mutual goal. Anyone who has been in a play knows how important it is to realize that you can count on others if you need help. What a comfort that can be if you forget one of your lines: it's in the best interest of everyone else to make sure you remember it. It's also in your best interest to help everyone else when they need it. Despite the excitement and the exhilaration of a performance, I have always found rehearsals to be the most enjoyable part of any production: that's where the participants develop their community, set their goals, and determine how they will cooperate.

Even people who really enjoy the excitement of two teams meeting on the sporting field understand almost instinctively the value of collaboration. A few years ago, I was asked to offer a conflict-resolution training program for Cambodian teens at a summer camp. When I arrived, I was shown to the cabin where I would be meeting with the group. As I was setting up, I heard the sounds of cheering outside and went to investigate. I walked down the hill toward a ball field and saw every single teenager in that camp involved either in playing or watching a very serious game of soccer. This was not just a pickup game. The players had uniforms and the spectators were definitely on opposite "sides." One of the teens told me the game had just started. It was almost time for my training session to start, but I assumed it would be postponed. When I mentioned this to one of the camp staff, he made it clear this would not be the case: he proceeded to walk into the middle of the soccer field, blew his whistle and told everyone it was time to meet with me in the cabin up the hill.

Quite a few of the spectators ran off in the opposite direction, but the staff member did a good job of herding most of them up the hill. As they walked into the room where I was waiting for them, I was sure no good would come from this session. One of the young men made a point to bring his chair up to the front of the room, slam it to the floor right in front of me, then turn it around and sit down, arms folded, with his back to me. The laughter this produced eased the tension a little, but did not change the mood of the group significantly. I tried to introduce my subject in a variety of ways, but it became very clear that all they were interested in was soccer. So we talked about soccer; about playing soccer; about watching soccer games; about the game they were just playing. Of course, they talked a great deal about competition; but mostly they talked about the fact that they just loved to play. Finally I put a question to them: "What was the best game you ever played?" They all agreed it was one fantastic game, the year before, in which the final score was a tie. They loved that game because everyone had a chance to play their best and no one had to lose.  

According to Born Chea, Youth Program Coordinator for the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, this approach to competition is one that Cambodian young people (and their parents) are learning. While there is no singular cultural response to competition, many Cambodian youth would define winning as personally overpowering someone else. "What we try to teach these kids," Chea says, "is that competition is best when you are working on individual discipline, personal or family values, and achieving goals." Generally, he continues, "families encourage their kids not to win, but to do their best. This kind of encouragement helps strengthen personal behavior and support family values." Cambodian culture is traditionally very authoritarian, so any disputes are resolved by whoever is in charge. This might include a parent, a law-enforcement officer, or a court. In this country, Cambodians are often more likely to choose mediation over more legalistic methods of problem solving. Born Chea cites several possible reasons for this: "Some people are realizing that mediation is less expensive than going to court; that they can have more control over the outcome in mediation; and they have a better chance the end result will be win/win."

Even the most stalwart fan will agree that a game between unevenly matched teams holds very little appeal. Take a look at the stands of any NFL or NBA game that is approaching the end with a lopsided score. Most fans will leave, no longer interested in the competition. Even when the teams are adequately matched, the excitement lies in the possibility of either team winning. It's the play that most of us truly love, whether we are watching or participating. Perhaps as a society we forget our love of play because we focus too much on victory. As Kohn writes in No Contest:

"To the proponent of competition who insists that differences in ability will always exist, then, we may reply that it is the significance invested in these differences and not the differences themselves that constitutes competition. The ability to observe discrepant abilities without turning the situation into a contest is a learned disposition. The degree of an individual's competitiveness can be expressed as a function of how frequently this happens and how strongly one feels the need to be better. But there is not a shred of evidence that this inclination is an unavoidable feature of human life."

Games prove especially useful in helping students understand the difference between competition and cooperation, and the relative value of each. One game, called "Kisses," always disturbs younger students, but definitely piques the interests of older ones. The "Kiss" referred to in this game is made out of Hershey's chocolate, and it is offered as a reward for playing the game successfully. Condensed instructions for the game are essentially as follows: "The object of the game is to win. Form pairs and sit across from each other. Each of you put your right elbow on the table and clasp your hands together." At this point, of course, almost everyone in the room looks and acts as if they are ready to "arm wrestle." The instructions, however, go on: "All you have to do is take this position with your partner. Every time the back of someone's hand touches the tabletop, score one point. For every point, you will earn one chocolate kiss."

Some amazing things happen when groups are asked to play this game. As you might imagine, many people (children and adults) immediately try to arm wrestle and "beat" their opponent. Some, however, realize that the rules are not those of arm wrestling, but of something else, and they quickly understand that cooperation will get them more chocolate. When the game ends and the participants are asked how many times the back of someone's hand touched the top of the table, the numbers will usually start out very low--one, two, five. Then, those who cooperated will call out their numbers--twenty-five, forty, seventy-two! Seventy-two Hershey's Kisses. Often, others will cry foul, and accuse the cooperative ones of "cheating." Once the rules are repeated, though, they finally understand the simple, cooperative alternative that never occurred to them: had they defined their goal, they would have seen the value of collaboration over competition. Almost every group I have ever introduced to this game wants to play it again as soon as they understand this insight about cooperation. They are just aching to try it out
. . . and get more chocolate.  

One of our most important jobs as parents is helping our children learn to make reasonable choices. But even more important is to help train our children's vision to recognize all of their available choices, to see alternatives that a deeply ingrained competitive mindset will tend to filter out and ignore. Even when our culture, our impulses, and our memories tell us that competition is the only option, we need to look harder. We must teach our children to look, and look again before deciding on their options.

Only with this keen vision will our children become adept at winnowing out mutually beneficial solutions to problems, and practiced at the art of collaboration. Competition for its own sake is a learned response--and it can be unlearned. We can help our children find ways to work together for common goals. We have examples to achieve this and the creativity to teach it. Our children, for their part, have the ability and the desire to learn. It may be one of the ways we can offer them a better world to live in. Isn't that what we all really want for the future? Perhaps in that kind of future, we will see more films that suggest: "It's always worth playing when no one has to win or lose."


Charles Numrich is the director of Creative Theatre Unlimited, a St. Paul nonprofit arts organization focusing on community-building through the arts. His essay, "Gimme Bread," appeared in the November, 1998 issue of Minnesota Parent.



No Contest, Alfie Kohn; Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1986

Creative Conflict Resolution: More than 200 Activities for Keeping Peace in the Classroom, Bill Kreidler, Scott, Foresman and Co., Glenview, IL, 1984

Elementary Perspectives 1: Teaching Concepts of Peace and Conflict, Bill Kreidler; Educators for Social Responsibility, Cambridge, MA, 1990

Resolving Conflicts Creatively, Educators for Social Responsibility, New York City Board of Education.

Project CREATE Teaching Guide, Metro Educational Cooperative Service Unit, St. Paul, MN, 1994

Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope, Ed Brody, et. al., editors, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, PA, 1992

Living Tapestries, Charles Numrich; Creative Theatre Unlimited, St. Paul, MN, 1990

The Interaction Ritual, Erving Goffman, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1967

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