3 Ways Competition Can Do More Harm Than Good

Self-consciousness, stereotypes, and feeling outmatched: Sometimes competition can undermine your best efforts.

3 Ways Competition Can Do More Harm Than Good

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your peers, self-conscious, or unfit for the place you’re in, the work you do will suffer, or so suggests the research curated by Annie Murphy Paul.


Out of reach, out of effort

Back in the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force Academy noticed that the number of academically troubled cadets was increasing, so economists tried to understand the problem. Their solution: pairing low performers with high performers–to great failure.

Why’d this happen? Since low perfomers couldn’t match their partners’ efforts, they gave up. Researchers suggest competition only increases performance when matchups are even, so that extra effort becomes the deciding factor. If people don’t feel they have a fighting chance, they won’t fight–consistent with findings on “flow.”

Stereotype self-consciousness

Plunging into the always difficult topic of race, Paul addresses “stereotype threat”–the tension felt by groups who are conscious of negative sterotypes. A 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigates how the tension harmed academic performance.

In the experiment, groups of white and black students took the same test, though it was presented differently to each group: One was told their intellectual abilities would be evaluated; the other was told it was doing a puzzle test that did not assess ability.

The results were startling: black students who thought their intelligence was being evaluated did worse than their white peers, while black students who believed they were only figuring out puzzles (what the researchers described as “stereotype-safe”) equaled white students’ scores. It reinforces common theory: If people think they are in danger of confirming negative stereotypes, they do worse on a test.

Feeling unfit reduces performance

Another academic study: 124 Princeton underclassmen took a standardized test with two added stressors: asking which high school they attended–and how many former classmates made it into Princeton–and a titling of “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire.”


How did the threats work? The high-school question was intended to make students feel lucky to be at Princeton, and the title created a intellectual self-consciousness.

Another group did the high school question after the test and faced an exam entitled “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire”–less threatening than the other.

The results were staggering. The more frightened first group answered questions with 72 percent accuracy, while the second group earned the 90 percent mark. The competitive stress resulted in an 18 percent shift. Why? Maybe because when people feel threatened, they’re less creative.

Paul makes the same point in her takeaway:

Human beings are supremely sensitive to context, to the cues we sense in our surroundings, and never more so than when we’re performing. When you feel stressed or threatened, you can try mentally reframing the situation as a game or a challenge; when young people feel anxious, parents and teachers can help by downplaying the evaluative nature of the event. But when we feel strong and capable, when we feel like a contender–then we can use the spur of competition to reach new heights.

To Perform At Your Best, Manage Competition Carefully

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.


[Image: Flickr user Namelas Frade]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.