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 gave more difficult letters to the other student worked less hard on their own word task, apparently feeling that if their partner did poorly, they needn’t aim as high as they otherwise might. 

There, in a nutshell, is the competitiveness dilemma. “Social comparison and benchmarking—assessing our own performance relative to others rather than to an internal standard—comes naturally,” said Stanford’s Szu-chi Huang, who led the 2019 study. For evidence, think of all the financiers who accumulate more and more wealth, well beyond what they or their descendants could ever use, so they can rise a place or three on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, or the parents whose idea of idle conversation is discussing their children’s SAT scores or AP credits. Is such competitiveness good for us or society?

Ideally, competition motivates us to achieve. But it can also be counterproductive, causing us to settle for less than we might otherwise accomplish.

Ideally, competition motivates us to achieve. But it can also be counterproductive, causing us to settle for less than we might otherwise accomplish, the research showed. Once we’ve bested the other guy, we slack off, even if we could have soared higher. It can also make us sabotage others, as the Stanford participants did. That takes mental resources that could otherwise be directed at attaining our own goals, Huang said, and so makes us achieve less. 

But our competitiveness can also become so intense we just can’t resist even when it erodes our sense of well-being. According to scholars of positive psychology, that desirable state comes from mastery, belonging, and autonomy. Although knowing if you have mastered a skill requires measuring yourself against others, it does not require besting them. Although some studies have found that competitiveness is associated with happiness, that may be because happy people can summon more motivation to be competitive, and not because competitiveness boosts our sense of well-being. If the motivation for competitiveness is purely self-improvement, it can boost one’s sense of well-being; if the motivation is wiping the floor with competitors, not so much. 

Dealing with Toxic Competitiveness

When we sabotage others or lower our own goals, settling for just slightly besting others, competitiveness becomes toxic. Huang was drawn to study this extreme competitiveness by how common it is, as well as whether personality, gender, age, or other traits affect how competitive someone is, and whether the toxic version has any cure.

Outside the lab, we needn’t look far for evidence of our competitive mindset. Asked whether they would prefer to have more income in absolute terms but less than others (that is, everyone at work got a raise, but yours was much smaller), or less income but more money relatively (everyone took a pay cut, but yours was so small you’re now one of the most highly paid employees), the vast majority of respondents choose to be worse off, as long as they can rank higher than others on the compensation pecking order. That’s held true for the decades that psychologists have been asking the question.

We assess our own status on other dimensions—intellectual capabilities, athletic prowess, even altruism—this way, too. That 3:40:28 marathon we ran feels like a major achievement…until our running buddy crosses the line with a 3:39. When Huang’s cycling gym began posting scores for all to see, some people pedaled harder, as the trainers intended, but others (those already at or near the top) slacked off. When people decide how much to give to a good cause, if the $50 they initially considered giving exceeds the median donation ($30, let’s say), they feel just as generous giving $35. 

If that manifestation of ubercompetitiveness isn’t irrational enough, how’s this? When people form groups to lose weight, it’s not unusual for members to try to entice others into eating, say, a calorie-packed cupcake or two…and then rationalizing that they can skip their workout that day. Let’s just say that Fitbit knew exactly what it was doing when it included a “taunt” feature (I did 3,500 steps today to your 3,000, nyah nyah). 

Even when our pursuit of a goal is not a zero-sum game—your weight loss has no effect on mine—we nevertheless care deeply about how others do. “We view our own efforts through a competitive lens,” Huang said.

That makes some sense. By assessing others’ performance, we can better estimate what qualifies as high achievement. Who knew that scoring 30 points out of 100 on a problem in my college physics class was fantastic? That’s especially relevant when we’re new to something. Novices at an athletic endeavor such as CrossFit tend to assess their performance competitively, something psychologists describe as “ego-involved” (How many reps is she doing?), while old hands take a “mastery perspective,” focusing on objective goals.

Is It Our Destiny to Compete?

Competitiveness also arises from our deep desire for self-knowledge. That, of course, can come from introspection, but also from comparisons with others—a prerequisite of competitiveness. People differ in the strength of their “social comparison orientation.” Those who rank high in neuroticism, conformity, and self-consciousness, but low in intellectual autonomy—the ability to think for yourself—are especially prone to comparing themselves to others. It’s easy to imagine how lacking intellectual autonomy might contribute to hyper-competitiveness: If you don’t believe in yourself enough to set goals that are independent of what others are doing, the default is How is he doing?

However, we are not inalterably wired for competition: For every colleague who measures her performance by how others do, there is one who seeks excellence and mastery according to her own lights.

To some extent, benchmarking and competitiveness were wired into us by evolution: When resources from food to space to mates were finite, our objective achievement hardly mattered. Even if we weren’t all that attractive to potential mates, even a slight edge gave us a better chance of leaving descendants—that’s just a function of life in a community.

Still, evidence suggests that life circumstances also affects competitiveness. In a 2014 study, for example, about 70% of men who were only children chose to play a game in which they earned points for besting others (competitive) rather than for correct answers (excellence). But barely 40% of those with older sisters chose competition over excellence—suggesting a competitiveness-damping effect of growing up with an elder sister.

Older, Wiser, Less Cut-Throat Competitive?

One might expect competitiveness to fade with age—don’t we eventually make our peace with what we’ve accomplished and with the goals we value? A 2011 study found that competitiveness increases until around age 50, and begins to taper off in that decade. Researchers asked men either to choose to solve a specified number of mental math problems, or to solve more than someone else. Only half the men aged 25 to 34 opted to compete, but among those 45 to 54, a whopping 70% wanted in.

Competitiveness, the study revealed, increases with age until what researchers call the “feisty 50s,” but not because confidence increases with age. It may be that men (possibly women, too, though they weren’t studied) see their 50s as the last chance to make their mark and feel compelled to give it all they’ve got. 

But here’s the encouraging part: Competitiveness fell through age 75, the oldest participants. Perhaps age does bring wisdom, at least in the sense of trusting our own north star about what truly counts as an achievement.