The Limits of Competition
American culture reveres competition, but sometimes it's destructive.
Competition is great for lots of things. The sublime basketball being played by the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals is proof positive.
When businesses compete, innovation results, and consumers benefit from improved products, increased choice and reduced prices.
But there are limits to competition as an animating force, and it is actively destructive when misapplied.
Writing in The Washington Post, third-grade teacher Launa Hall introduces us to the world of “data walls” where her students’ scores on state proficiency tests are displayed for all to see in a handy color-coded scheme, green being the best, yellow in the middle, and red…well, when has red been the color of anything but trouble?
Hall describes a possibly well-intentioned scheme to breed “healthy competition” in learning into an instrument of shame, where students scoring poorly on these assessments internalize a personal narrative of failure and worthlessness.
What is it like to internalize that you are a failure in third grade?
For two years, Orange County high school in California issued color-coded ID’s based on standardized test scores. Those who scored highest earned “platinum” cards, which came with perks such as an express checkout line in the cafeteria. Sociologists Thad Domina, Andrew Penner and Emily Penner took the opportunity to study the impact of this form of competition on students and published their results in a recent paper.
While the school’s overall score on the “Academic Performance Index” increased from 880 to 895 (out of 1000), the researchers discovered some interesting effects on individuals when doing regression analysis.
While students just on either side of the white (lowest) and gold (middle) card levels were almost identical, those above the threshold did significantly better on the tests than those just below, mainly because the low status students scored much worse than expected. Grades too are effected for low status students, dropping the average 2/3 of a letter grade.
While those just above the threshold worked harder to maintain status, those below seemed to accept their fate as low achievers, fulfilling the prophecy with even worse performance.
As sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman says in a post commenting on the study, “The lesson here is that while yes, people respond to incentives, they do so in social contexts. You can’t just assume incentives are going to have similar effects on all groups of people, or ignore the effects of new status groups that are produced.”
Having been branded low achievers, these students fulfilled their “destinies.” They also experienced social costs and ostracizing.
Though, as Berman points out, this is no guarantee that these effects would be consistent across other schools. It’s just as easy to envision a school where the platinum card gets your lunch stolen and your ass kicked.
The social context of competition cannot be excised, and shame does not appear to be a particularly good motivator for most when it comes to academic achievement.
Thinking of social context and competition…
For the last five years, just about every Thursday night I drag my carcass to the rink to play in an over-35, no-check hockey league. There was a time, in high school, where I was highly competitive in hockey, borderline losing my mind during games in a frenzy to win. After a tough state semi-final loss senior year I cried like my dog had died.
In our adult league, we’re competitive. We keep score, there’s referees, and a $100 bar credit if you win the championship. But in order to temper the competition and foster community, it is a “draft” league. Every player is ranked by ability (we have ex-pros, so I am decidedly middling) and the captains draft everyone, roughly in order by rank. Your “enemy” one season may be your teammate the next.
Things occasionally get heated as passions overflow in the moment, but this rarely lasts even to the final buzzer.
There is a social cost to taking the games too seriously. You run the risk of becoming that guy that no one wants to play with anymore. Guys with NHL experience, who could choose to dominate every moment on the ice if they chose to do so, play alongside people who picked up the sport as adults. You will never see one of the ex-pros take even a 50% strength slapshot because that shot hitting a middle-aged hockey duffer could do some real damage and nothing kills the fun like waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Community outweighs competition because after the game, everyone is going to meet in the bar and be who we are the rest of the week.
Competition works really well when the goal is to determine who is a winner and who is a loser and the winners benefit, receving their tributes and rewards.
When the rewards are outsized, or the punishment severe, truly terrible behaviors can result. Think about the Atlanta testing scandal, as teachers falsified scores under pressure to “achieve,” or the entire Russian athletics federation systematically circumventing doping restrictions.
Because of the power of competition in our culture, we see it as a panacea for our systemic problems. We will compete our way out of our troubles.
And yet, competition seems terribly ill-suited to education. If it’s a competition, someone needs to win, and yet, we’re saying no child can be left behind.
How do we reconcile these tensions?
Next time, some thoughts on the inefficiency and destructiveness of asking public higher ed institutions to compete with each other.
 Though, it’s important to note, that the lower performance could’ve also been fueled by teacher perception of the white card students, for example, writing off a low performing student as a lost cause and therefore depriving them of additional instructional help.
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