Competitiveness is a measure of a person’s desire to surpass others. A highly competitive person is more likely to see a situation as a competition, even when there is no explicit winner or loser. For example, a teen may compare their social media popularity to their friends’ rankings, even though there is no explicit reward for having the most followers. The individual’s rivals may not even realize they are competing.
During a game or contest, a competitive person may go to great lengths to be victorious. Competitiveness can motivate a person to work harder than they would have alone. However, an individual who feels they must win at all costs may burn themselves out or alienate others. When competitiveness causes emotional distress or disrupts someone’s daily life, that person may wish to get professional help.
COMPETITIVENESS IN BIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY
Competition by itself is neither good nor bad. In biology, competition between organisms is a natural result of evolution. All organisms must compete for a limited number of resources, such as food, shelter, or mating partners. Humans’ tendency to compete may be a natural outgrowth of this biological competition.
Some kinds of competition can indirectly affect one’s ability to survive and have offspring. For example, a singer who competes to win a million dollars can then afford to eat nutritious food, buy a home big enough to house lots of kids, and so on.
However, the psychological trait of competitiveness often has nothing to do with survival, although the tendency to compete might be a natural outgrowth of biological competition. Healthy levels of competition can help improve self-esteem and increase enjoyment of life. It can also motivate people to work harder toward their goals.
COMPETITIVENESS AND PERSONALITY
Competitiveness is often described as a personality trait. However, it is much less stable across the life span than traits such as neuroticism, extroversion, and novelty-seeking.
It is true that some people tend to be more competitive than others. However, certain situations can also boost competitiveness in people. People who are raised in cultures that value competition are also more likely to be competitive. People are more likely to be competitive when:
- They measure their self-worth by comparing themselves to others. For instance, a gymnast may measure their skill by how high they place in tournaments rather than by their balance, timing, and other objective measurements.
- The competition is about something important to them. For example, someone who takes pride in their intelligence may be driven to compete in spelling bees but not a dance contest.
- Their competitor has a similar skill level. People are more likely to compete against someone who is a little better or a little worse than them, as opposed to a complete novice or master in the field.
- They know their competitor personally. People tend to be more emotionally invested when comparing themselves to friends than to strangers. Individuals are also more likely to be competitive in smaller groups.
- They have an audience. The presence of one’s peers can increase the pressure to perform well.
- They have very good or very poor rankings. Individuals who are close to being “the best” may push themselves harder. Likewise, individuals may compete more to avoid being “the worst” at an activity.
- There are limited resources. For example, people are more likely to fight over food in a desert than in a supermarket. In an empty desert, one person’s gain means another person’s loss. But in a store, everyone can “win” and get as much food as they need.
WHEN IS COMPETITIVENESS A PROBLEM?
It is possible to be hypercompetitive, which researchers define as having “a neurotic need to win at all costs.” Hypercompetitive individuals are more likely to have a Machiavellian world view. In other words, they may believe “the ends justify the means.” A Machiavellian person may threaten rivals, steal resources, or tell lies in order to get ahead.
Excessive competition can also hurt the individual themself. A person may spend so much effort training to succeed that they neglect other parts of their life, such as friendship or hobbies. This can quickly lead to burnout and isolation.
People who constantly compare themselves to others may develop chronic feelings of inadequacy. Since no one is good at everything, competitive individuals always have someone to lose against. The constant quest to be the best may lead to perfectionism, stress, and other issues.
THERAPY FOR COMPETITIVENESS
If competitiveness has affected your daily life, you may benefit from professional support. In therapy, you may work on:
- Developing self-esteem that is independent of your “rank” in a community.
- Setting realistic goals that are ambitious without being unattainable.
- Setting boundaries with rivals who exacerbate your competitiveness.
- Finding a hobby you can enjoy without feeling the need to be particularly good at it.
- Treating related depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
A trained therapist can help you reach your goals in a healthy way. There is no shame in getting support when you need it.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Garcia, S. M., Tor, A., & Schiff, T. M. (2013). The psychology of competition: A social comparison perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 20(10), 1-17. Retrieved from https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1943&context=law_faculty_scholarship
- Gilbert, P. & Basran, J. (2019, June 25). The evolution of prosocial and antisocial competitive behavior and the emergence of prosocial and antisocial leadership styles. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00610/full#h1
- Houston, J. M., Cruz, N., Gosnell, M., Queen, J. S., & Vlahov, R. (2015). Personality traits and winning: Competitiveness, hypercompetitiveness, and Machiavellianism. North American Journal of Psychology, 17(1), 105-112. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323686348_Personality_traits_and_winning_Competitiveness_hypercompetitiveness_and_machiavellianism
Last Updated: 07-18-2019
Gurmeet S.May 11th, 2019 at 9:25 AM
How much competition mental state healthy . Olympian athletes are obsessive competition that’s why they work so hard and take them ability to limitless ?
MahazibinDecember 10th, 2019 at 2:44 PM
VidMay 21st, 2020 at 3:07 AM
Well, since the adulthood i keep communicating with people whom i see as rivals. Most my friends or enemies are my rivals in some way. In my case competition happens for emotions and self worth mostly. And i accept this as an issue.
MikeMarch 29th, 2022 at 11:17 AM
Mike here and i just wanted to say that this was a really helpful article
EnriqueApril 7th, 2022 at 1:13 PM
I am gay
AdrielJune 6th, 2022 at 8:22 PM
This article clearly defines my situations and what I’ve been trying to work on.
I hope to get help as soon as possible.
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