In the introduction of the paper “How stressful are economic competitions in the lab?” by Magdalena Buckert, Christiane Schwieren, Brigitte M. Kudielka and Christian J. Fiebach, more than in any other part of the investigation, there’s a very clear application of this economic competition in the real world. It’s tangible and it’s also very very slippery.
“Competition is ubiquitous in economic life, be it companies that compete in markets or employees who compete for jobs, careers, or salaries. The most direct form of economic competition at the individual level is evoked by so-called “winner-takes-it-all” payment schemes, a form of tournaments introduced by employers to increase productivity among employees.”
This investigation aims to find out if a well-established laboratory of economic competitions can function as a stressor and provoke changes in mood, heart rate, as well as hormone levels, such as cortisol and testosterone. It is very important to note that this type of tournament game is predictive of career choices (Buser, Niederle, & Oosterbek, 2014).
I think that the quote above is very relevant because it demonstrates the different consequential ways in which the stress that companies make their employees undertake can impact one’s career and life decisions. Most of us would think of competition, as Bateson says we do, as a survival mechanism; the survival of the fittest. However, when it comes to an economic competition for jobs and for economic reward in a capitalist economy, is it really about survival? Maybe it’s more of a slippery slope in which we fall into a trap; a vicious cycle. Does this make this type of competition an artificial manipulation? Is it really natural?
The study that was conducted in order to see how these economic competitions triggered different physiological reactions was composed of three different rounds. They all had their respective payment schemes. The first round has a fixed payment, the second round is a tournament (winner-takes-it-all payment), and in the third round, the participants are free to choose their preferred payment option. Some aspects of this study involved self-selection. They could see an increase or changes (in some cases) in heart rate, blood pressure, mood, as well as hormone levels, except for cortisol. According to the paper and biology in general, cortisol is the stress hormone, meaning that cortisol will only be released if the individual feels threatened or challenged, whether active or passively. This made me think to myself: Why would the participants feel (subjectively) stressed in addition to the results proving physiological responses, and still not provide any evidence for the changes in cortisol? Does this mean that there could be an artificial, psychologically triggered type of stress that only economic competition could create? Could it just be a lesser version of stress that only mundane circumstances provoke? Just like Elise said, the perception of competition and it being either a threat or a challenge could depend on the individual, their learning, or even their education, as much as it could be the circumstance. What if it is the economic system in general?
The paper provides with some insight into these questions in showing the difference between an active and a passive coping strategy. It states that an active coping strategy will likely be accompanied by an increase in positive mood, as well as increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and an increase in testosterone levels. On the other hand, a passive coping strategy involves decreased mood, diminished sympathetic activity, and an increase in cortisol. For all we know, all the participants could’ve had an active coping strategy, and, therefore, not providing any evidence for an increase in cortisol levels. However, if all the other physiological/psychological symptoms point to the prevalence of stress in this activity, could it mean that the type of stress that the participants got was induced by the connotation of the tournament itself? What I mean by this is that, in capitalist economies, in a nonstop competition for better jobs, careers, or salaries, the participants knew that this is not a matter of life or death. It’s a competition to get the best economic reward they can. It’s a competition induced by capitalist economies and the private sector. If they can get employees to strive for more money without having to kill for it like seagulls would fight for food, it’s a win-win, but it certainly is a bigger win for the companies. The company gets the best trained, most productive, award winning employee. Of course it isn’t a win for the company if they elicit a nervous breakdown and bring out the aggressive in their best performing employees, but they sure can benefit from a competitive one who will be willing to undertake the stress to work for that company, and obtain a financial reward in return.
At this point, this probably sounds pretty Machiavellian (and somewhat fallacious) so I’ll move onto the structure and the style of this paper. This paper is, in my opinion, substantially different from the other ones we’ve read for this class. This is because this paper includes a lot of statistical evidence and comparison. We’ve seen other papers with surveys and basic mathematical models, but I think this paper puts a lot more emphasis on the numeric side to it. This is due to the fact that the aim of the investigation involved a lot of physiological measurements, which inevitably means that the paper will necessarily need to give more importance to it. There’s also a lot of mathematical procedures to test the correlation between the different stages of the study and the reactions of the participants, which ultimately shows how dependent the psychophysiology is related to the circumstance. Furthermore, structure wise, it looks a lot more like a scientific method, instead of the regular essay-style that Hutcheon used. This makes it seem a lot more logical in terms of how facts were gradually thrown at the reader. It’s more objective and result-related than it is about speculation.
Whether an individually induced or a circumstantial matter, to an extent, it’s very clear that the economic system in capitalist societies could largely contribute to individuals feeling stressed from time to time. However, could we ever know if it’s an artificially imposed type of stress that only benefits certain members of society? Is this type of stress even real? We know for a fact that it’s convenient for the private sector, but can we tell if the stress we feel in a capitalist context is real or a mere manipulation of the human brain to perform better?
Image from https://www.familyfirst.org.nz/2017/09/the-slippery-slope-of-euthanasia-the-evidence/