The article The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective (Perspectives on Psychological Science 2013 8: 634) by Garcia et al. focuses on the factors that contribute to increasing social comparison and competitiveness and their impact on competitive attitudes and behaviour.
In this blog post, I will point to some possible contradictions, draw comparisons with other social theories, and highlight certain considerations to make while constructing arguments like Garcia’s.
The author(s) begin this piece by defining social comparison, i.e. that actors are propelled by a basic drive “to improve their performance and simultaneously minimize or pre-empt discrepancies between their and other persons’ (“targets”) level of performance”. The article then places specific emphasis on the factors that drive this behaviour: Individual factors, which include personal factors (individual differences, dimension relevance) and relational factors (similarity, relationship closeness), and Situational factors, which include incentive structures, proximity to standards, number of competitors and social category fault lines.
While discussing the impact of these factors, the author(s) state that “comparisons across social category fault lines increase comparison concerns and competitiveness in relation to comparisons made within social category fault lines”. Furthermore, it is also put forward that identity- based motivation (evoking a certain identity) leads to better performance in relevant dimensions. This model is exceptionally simplistic and merits scrutiny.
Firstly, throughout the article, much emphasis is placed on the differences between the individual and situational factors,. I disagree with this approach on the following grounds. Comparisons within social categories/ culture shape our identities beyond our total realization. This identity influences one’s motivation, which in turn impacts competitiveness. This interrelation is exemplified by the idea behind beauty pageants. Those who compete fit into the standards of beauty set out by the particular society or culture to which they belong. This adversely shapes the identity of those who do not conform to these norms and impacts their motivation. This is a self-reproducing cycle that constantly confines certain group to society’s sidelines.
This correlation can be better understood in relation to the conception of The Sociological Imagination by American sociologist C.Wright Mills. This can be defined as the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and wider society, or personal troubles and public issues. To quote Mills- “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” Taking into consideration the example of beauty pageants stated above, not adhering to societal standards is both a personal trouble (it has a psychological effect on one’s self esteem and social standing and could potentially lead to eating disorders, body dysmorphia and a host of other issues), as well as a public issue (the very existence of such standards). Therefore, instead of the model of situational factors encompassing individual factors, as suggested by social comparison theory, I would like to think of it as a venn diagram wherein individual factors have just as much of an impact on situational factors as it is the other way around.
Secondly, I would like to challenge the idea of uncertainty in the environment related to the availability of resources as a situational factor that increases competition. While this may be true for Western societies, particularly in North America, it by no means a universal, all-encompassing notion.
In several Eastern societies, specifically those that were predominantly tribal before the advent of colonialism, such uncertainty encouraged cooperation. Common property resources, natural resources owned and managed collectively society rather than by individuals, illustrate such cooperation to preserve scarce resources. The joint management of forest groves by conglomerations of tribal societies in parts of South Asia showcases that not all groups are preconditioned by social comparison. This is in line with the views articulated by Jose Luis Molina (“Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology”, Anthropology Today 2017 33.1). Focusing on foraging societies, Molina states that “bands are typically composed of both genetically related and unrelated individuals, and that individuals tend to visit other groups frequently, facilitating friendly intergroup interactions”. The author(s) do hint at these limitations, stating that the framework has been built based on the Western, individualistic model, and that proximity to standard manifests itself differently across culture, but provide no further information.
While I personally agree with the aforementioned argument, I see a certain level of generalization occurring. In my opinion, Garcia takes on an exceedingly binary approach towards explaining these differences, failing to consider the ripple-effects of colonialism and the continued promulgation of Western ideology in decolonized countries, as well as the rise of “mass culture”. Hence, there is no definitive way of knowing how social comparison and competitiveness manifest themselves in the “East” and “West”. A more effective approach would be to investigate first how various groups within cultures and societies respond to these variables.
Nevertheless, I strongly appreciate the authors’ recognition of fact that the information currently available to us regarding competition in socio-psychological contexts is limited, and the suggestions made for further research. However, this article does not appeal to me personally as I felt that the arguments do not raise enough questions about the veracity of the approaches taken. Furthermore, it does not take into account the subtractive effects of competition based on similarity, ranking and social categories, and disregards what social comparison means to those who, by virtue of societal standards/ stereotypical notions, are “disqualified” from competing at all/ rank low in a relative sense. Does this increase motivation to compete or cause them to refrain from the competitive sphere altogether? How do we overcome this and increase integration in a manner such that the realization that these ranks, norms, categories and positions are man-made encourages those who are sidelined to utilize their potential and competency?
In conclusion, I believe that it is very much necessary to recognize the fact that meaningful conclusions can be drawn only while taking all the factors as well as their interdependencies into consideration. The article does open the potential for further research and to take on a more comprehensive stance regarding the psychology of competitiveness. Delving into these avenues will hopefully facilitate the formulation of newer methods of understanding the intricacies of social comparison and competition.