How to Deal with Toxic Competition

Our competitive nature becomes toxic when we’re motivated by others’ success, rather than our own self-mastery.

Eduardo Luzzatti

How competitive are we? Very, if you consider the 200 participants in an experiment at Stanford University. They had to ponder a string of letters (RSLALHT, for example) and make as many words as possible (rash, salt, thrall, etc.). After each round, the researchers informed the participants that an unseen student with whom they’d been paired had beat them by making even more words.

Practically speaking, that didn’t matter: The participants would win a $5 Amazon gift card if they made 100 words in five rounds, regardless of how many the other player—who didn’t actually exist—made. Nevertheless, when allowed to change the difficulty of the fake player’s task, they gleefully seized the chance to make their letters mind-bogglingly hard to spell with—even though the opponent’s score mattered not a whit to the participants’ chances for a reward. 

So even when besting someone else has no real-life consequences, it seems, we just can’t help competing. In the Stanford study, the fictional partner wasn’t even an actual competitor. The participants didn’t even know who their partner was, and couldn’t see them, but they did all they could to thwart them anyway. They even eased up on their own → efforts: Participants who…