Sunday, January 21, 2007

Healthy and Unhealthy Competition

Education and social critic Alfie Kohn is an exhaustive researcher and engaging writer. I have not read all of his eleven original books, but I do highly recommend these two: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes and Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. The titles and subtitles make clear his premises about human motivation and behavior. In his first book, however, No Contest: The Case against Competition, Kohn writes (p. 9), “The more closely I have examined the topic, the more firmly I have become convinced that competition is an inherently undesirable arrangement, that the phrase healthy competition is actually a contradiction in terms.” To this, I must take exception.

Kohn, a strong defender of intrinsic motivation, frames his critique of competition—an extrinsic motivator—as setting up an irreconcilable conflict between doing well and beating others, as focusing on competence and accomplishment vs. trying to do something better than someone else. But healthy competition, especially the economic type, requires strong focus on doing well; beating someone else in the process, if it is focused on at all, is consequence. Kohn’s understanding of economic competition, unfortunately, is laced with Marxist mythology, Galbraith’s dependence effect, and the doctrine of pure and perfect competition, so he sees competition as an unfair and arbitrary creator of desires. Even at the highest levels of athletic competition, winning is consequence of doing well. Winning for its own sake is indeed not an attractive character trait.

Other forms of competition, however, do tend to focus exclusively, or nearly so, on beating others. Competition in the animal kingdom is the extreme example where, because of the limited supply of food and territory, competition often becomes a fight-to-the-death encounter. Among humans living in a society of abundance, a different kind of fight-to-the-death desperation is sometimes seen—not physical desperation as animals might face, but psychological. Because of the anxiety that many people feel, “competitiveness,” or a desperate need to defeat others, becomes a defensive motivator. Doing well takes a back seat. Occasionally, a highly talented and accomplished person exhibits defense-driven competitiveness, but this does not detract from the point that the source of the competitiveness is psychology and the source of the accomplishment is ability.

The one form of competition that devalues doing well and encourages beating others is that caused by government intervention into the economy. Ludwig von Mises points out (chapter 15, section 5) that totalitarian states encourage people to “court the favor of those in power,” but this is true of any bureaucratic intrusion into the economy. Licensed professionals, because of the privileges extended to them by the government, will focus less on doing their jobs well and more on making sure the bureaucrats keep the unlicensed out of their market. Because of the restriction in supply brought about by the licensing monopoly, the consumers of that profession must now scramble—not too differently from what animals must do in their kingdom—to compete with each other, that is, to try to beat others, to obtain that limited supply. The beaten ones, as in the medical market, go without.

Kohn’s book is filled with examples of bureaucratic and defensive competition, two types that I would agree are unhealthy, but he does not always identify them as such. He, of course, confuses the two with healthy, economic competition. If read with an understanding of this confusion in mind, Kohn’s book can provide a detailed analysis of the less savory forms of competition that exist in our society.



David said...

"....In the real world, the most important social attribute for a stable, healthy society is cooperation. In the real world, the most important form of competition is against oneself, against goals set for and by a person for that person's own achievement. In the real world, interpersonal competition for its own sake is widely recognized as pointless and destructive - yes, even in large corporations and in sports.

In the real world, and in Sudbury Valley, which is a school for the real world...."

[Excerpt, Back to Basics - Social basics, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]

David said...

"....Competition is what arises when people are free to choose with whom to cooperate...."

"....For human beings competition is not the negation of cooperation but a form of it...."

[Competition Is Cooperation | The Freeman | Ideas On Liberty, by Sheldon Richman.]

......and, more by Alfie Kohn on the subject, "....competitiveness in a 21st-century global economy.....":
When “21st-Century Schooling” Just Isn’t Good Enough: A Modest Proposal. Why Good Teachers Aren’t Thinking About the Global Economy. Satirical essay by Alfie Kohn, 2009.

David said...

......and, more by Alfie Kohn on the subject:
Against “Competitiveness” - Why Good Teachers Aren’t Thinking About the Global Economy, 2007.
"....competitiveness in a 21st-century global economy....."

David said...

Evaluation in Sudbury schools:

Sudbury schools do not perform and do not offer evaluations, assessments, or recommendations, asserting that they do not rate people, and that school is not a judge; comparing students to each other, or to some standard that has been set is for them a violation of the student's right to privacy and to self-determination. Students decide for themselves how to measure their progress as self-starting learners as a process of self-evaluation: real life-long learning and the proper educational evaluation for the 21st Century, they adduce. According to Sudbury schools, this policy does not cause harm to their students as they move on to life outside the school. However, they admit it makes the process more difficult, but that such hardship is part of the students learning to make their own way, set their own standards and meet their own goals. The no-grading and no-rating policy helps to create an atmosphere free of competition among students or battles for adult approval, and encourages a positive co-operative environment amongst the student body.