Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Are People So Competitive?

Dear Madame L,

I was running laps the other day at the local high school track, a way I can get exercise while listening to music and not worrying about being attacked or run over on the street.

After awhile, I became aware that another runner had caught up with me, then passed me. After he passed, he slowed down almost to a walk, until I drew near him, and then he looked over his shoulder at me and started running again. I was keeping my usual pace the whole time, as I run there for exercise, not for competition. The guy kept doing that, and I realized he was competing with me, even though I wasn't competing with him.

Then I realized that this happens all the time with people, sometimes with me. Even at work, when people are talking about some TV show, the person who remembers the most details and tells the stories in the funniest way seems to "win." And so I'm wondering if you know why people compete so much?


Out of the Running

Dear Out Of It,

You've raised an interesting question. Biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists would point out that the fastest runner and strongest hunter would have most access to food, so there's an evolutionary aspect to it. As one writer puts it, "Competition is one of the most basic functions of nature. Those best able to compete within an environmental niche survive. Those least well adapted die out. Competition remains a powerful instinctual drive in human nature. We compete against each other, we compete against ourselves, and we compete as groups against other groups."

Animals besides primates and humans also compete for food, attention, and mating opportunities. Even the beautiful songs of male birds in the spring are aimed at acquiring a mate and defeating rivals; and those that sing the best and add the most variations to their songs attract mates.

Family counselors would point out that the child who is most endearing (smiles first, says "Mama" early, learns fastest) to his/her parents may be given more chances to succeed further. Both older and younger siblings would agree.

A recently published book, Duels and Duets, by John L. Locke, suggests that human male speech tends to be competitive and aggressive, establishing hierarchical position (duels), while female speech tends to be cooperative and harmony-establishing, maintaining family and social relationships (duets). 

However, some recent research on primates and humans shows that most of their/our behavior is NOT directed toward competing for resources; and a new book by linguist Steven Pinker shows that human violence has decreased over our history. 

So, there's hope for us as a species. But what about individual situations? Madame L suspects that you would really like to know how to handle this competitive runner at the high-school track. Madame L is glad to know that you're listening to music as you run on the track (and not on the streets), and hopes you can find enough relief and distraction in your music to be able to ignore that guy. Madame L does not recommend shooting dirty glances at the guy, as this may encourage him to think he's won something or may goad him to act even more competitively.

Gentle Readers, how have you handled unseemly competitive behavior?

Keep on running,

Madame L

1 comment:

AskTheGeologist said...

Well, I've NEVER felt competitive.

I get really ticked off at the jerks who drive precisely the speed limit in front of me on the way to work each morning, however... but that's not competitive, because I have an over-horsed V-6 Engine, and most of them don't.

Those testosterone-deficit mental primitives couldn't drive their way out of a paper sack if their lives depended on it, anyway.