Competitive Human Behaviour

I know psychologists may define ‘competition‘ as an attempt to provide…

an advantage to the individual at the expense of others

…but are they right? I’m not convinced.

In the UK we are born into a world where we are told that competition is good, the ‘free market’ rules, and monopolies are bad. Competitive environments certainly seem to be productive environments where people may work very hard indeed. Ironically, I believe that people may work very hard, in an unconscious effort to reduce how hard they have to compete with other people, or to reduce other peoples ability to compete with them.

Is our ultimate aim simply to gain an advantage at the expense of others, as the standard definition of competition goes? I would argue that it is not, and that our actual purpose for competing is to actually reduce competition, and reduce our need to compete.

Perhaps many peoples drive to earn more money and/or gain more power or status, examples of which might be: buying bigger and more powerful cars, dressing better, buying a bigger house with larger gated grounds, visiting more exclusive restaurants, renting a private box at the theatre, travelling First Class etc. may actually be the means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Conversely some people seem to take a different approach, they form co-operatives, or return to a simpler life, or opt out of society altogether. These choices also seem to reduce our own need to compete, and reduce our exposure to the competitive behaviour of other humans. It could also be argued that they achieve this in a more ‘wholesome’ way.

I think both approaches are trying to achieve the same end.

Increased restrictions within our societies seem to make us compete much harder. We consequently expend more energy competing with one another, than we would in a less restrictive environment. This increased energy output is the very reason for our increased productivity.

I suggest that in nature generally, competition exists to settle some difference, but that once settled, the reason to compete declines and therefore so does the energy output. However western society exposes us to sustained high levels of restrictions, forcing us to constantly compete, and thus expend constant high levels of energy. These restrictions include those on the supply of goods, access to services, availability of time, expression of ideas, and on our liberties and freedom.

Here’s an interesting example to consider. Why do some people on busy trains put a bag on the empty seat next to them? Are they simply raising the ‘competitive bar’, forcing some new passengers to look for alternative empty seats, where the ‘competitive bar’ is lower?

Perhaps some of the restrictions that we tolerate in society, might be unnecessarily imposed upon us, to deliberately increase our productivity?

Some time ago I came across a web site by historian Jack Dempsey, who studied the Minoan civilisation of Crete, his observations and ideas struck a chord with my own thoughts. (Note: His web site has sadly gone but some of it is still available on the Way-Back Machine).

“This historian believes that once you know the facts, you will begin to think and act differently; for you will cease to believe that we have always been violent, competitive, racist, sexist and class-bound. The human, cosmopolitan worlds that actually preceded each of our main roots in Greece, Palestine, Italy and America were not Utopias. They were just what humans usually produce when their culture teaches that there is Plenty For Everybody (as there still is) on this planet.”
Jack Dempsey.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.


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