The Benefits and Drawbacks of Competition and Cooperation

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Many believe that competition and cooperation are competing forces. For example, Mary Catherine Bateson, in her speech “The Myths of Independence and Competition” [1] states that we need “corporations to stop competing and get them to co-operate in a sustainable manner instead of seeking ever-higher profits”; clearly, for Bateson, cooperation and competition are almost a binary choice — society must choose one over the other, and, to Bateson, cooperation is clearly the superior. Molina, et al. on the other hand, offer a more collaborative approach in approaching these concepts in their review article “Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology” [2], where the authors articulate that it is possible to have coexistence between cooperation and competition in a society. Molina, et al. use three types of society (hunter-gatherer, tribal, and peasant) to demonstrate that cooperation and competition can, and do, exist simultaneously.

Given that cooperation and competition can exist simultaneously, how can a society maximize the good of both? What are the benefits of each, and how do they function together within a society? This article will attempt to explore these questions by analyzing the respective benefits and drawbacks of both competition and cooperation in hopes of better understanding these two distinct, but related, concepts.

Cooperation, as seen in many cases in nature and human society, can ensure mutual benefit for two or more individuals. In economics, for example, this can be seen when multiple individuals specialize in one form of production and trade with each other, thereby increasing the overall quantity of each goods for all individuals involved. This process allows for a better quality of life for all parties involved, and ensures a greater chance of survival for everybody. Cooperation clearly is beneficial in society, but it also can lead to stagnation. Societies that are comfortable being self-sustaining could miss out on potentially more benefit as there is likely no innovation. Furthermore, in fully cooperative societies, there will likely always be individuals who do not contribute their fair share, meaning the society is not as efficient as it could be.

Conversely, competition ensures innovation due to the fact that the well-being of an individual in a competitive situation is only ensured if he/she has a better means of obtaining a scarce resource then the other individuals he/she is competing with. This leads to what Herbert Spencer [3] observed as ‘survival of the fittest’. In order to survive, an individual must develop the most efficient ways of obtaining a resource. Spencer’s work later was used by Charles Darwin [4] in his theory on natural selection, where species evolve by inheriting genes that “favor survival and reproduction”. Like cooperation, however, pure competition has drawbacks. As stated by chuadominic in the article “Cooperation and Competition in Modern Society”, competition “must be regulated properly”[5]. Too much competition can negatively impact society as a whole; overall, people are worse off when competing for scarce goods than when working together to find, or even create, more of these scarce goods.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which explains the benefits of competition, can also be used as a partial reason to why humans cooperate so extensively. When detailing the first of three primary mechanisms of the evolution of cooperation (kin selection, reciprocity, and group selection), Molina, et al. explain that “kinship stems from evolutionary biology and interprets the Darwinian theory of natural selection from the point of view of the gene”; individuals will act altruistically to protect others who carry similar genes. This process forms the foundation of the link between competition and cooperation: individuals will cooperate in order to preserve the survival of their species, not just their own specific set of genes.

As has been seen in this article, too much of either cooperation or competition can have negative effects on society. As a result, competition and cooperation should be used in tandem. By effectively using and regulating both of these concepts, it is possible to avoid the majority of the consequences of each: the innovation brought by competition avoids the stagnation of pure cooperation, and the mutual benefits to a population brought by cooperation ensures humanity is more likely to survive than under pure competition. Competition and cooperation are not competing forces — they can be used together to create a better society for all.


  1. I like your point discussing how the two work in tandem. You also talk a little about having to control both so we don’t have too much of either. Are there currently any plans or strategies in place in order to control or limit the amount of competition and cooperation in the market today?


  2. I think this is a really interesting topic to evaluate competition and cooperation side-by-side as you can clearly see how each “force” is beneficial or harmful to our society


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