Failure leads to Failure

The research article “How stressful are economic competitions in the lab? An investigation with physiological measures” by Magdalena Buckert, Christiane Schwieren, Brigitte M. Kudielka and Christian J. Fiebach, published in 2017, analyses the stress-levels of participants in competitive situations and in relation to the individual’s perception of competition. According to Buckert et al the response to and result of a competitive situation is heavily influenced by how the individual sees competition. If the situation is seen as a threat, the individual is more likely to adopt a passive coping strategy and not see a successful outcome. If it is seen as a challenge, the individual chooses an active coping strategy and is more likely to have a successful outcome. But how come someone perceives competition as a threat or as a challenge? One could argue that it is in the very nature or personality of the individual. Since according to many philosophers, e.g. Marx, humans are not inherently one thing or another, but are instead also shaped by their circumstances, one can add the education of the individual: If competitive tendencies have generally been frowned upon or encouraged (Felicity Cheung elaborates on that train of thought in her reading response). However, reality and how an individual experiences it also has a strong impact on that individual and may make it modify normative behaviour to help cope with certain situations. Past experiences have to factored in when evaluating how an individual perceives competitive situations. 

Humans are blessed with the ability to learn. By being able to learn, acquire knowledge and use our brains we carved out an ecological niche and finally became the arguably most powerful species on the planet. Our advanced ability to acquire knowledge however did not erase our most fundamental and important strategy: To stay away from dangerous things or things that can or have hurt us. This does not mean physical harm, but rather applies to emotional one. According to Buckert et al one of the main stressors in competitive situations is when one bases one’s self-esteem off of it, meaning when one loses, one also experiences an emotional blow. To illustrate: A completive rider losing in a dressage show because their horse bucked them off, does not only cause them bruises, but also hurts their self-esteem, because they lost at something they assumed they were good at. 

Why does failure hurt our self-esteem? One factor is of course the aforementioned personal value one places on certain areas of expertise, but another could be the value society places on certain areas of expertise. That would mean that failing in an area society deems important or even fundamental leads to a loss of social capital, as described by Werron. A lowered social standing definitely impacts an individual’s self-esteem negatively. All too often, we make our self-perception dependent on how other’s perceive us or try to “objectively” measure our abilities. This is a phenomenon observed in education, to cite Dawson et al: “With every degree of competition that is introduced to goad their performance, students experience anxiety. […] Of course if I already feel the failure that I fear, my learning will be discouraged […].” That might explain why individuals with low self-esteem or anxiety are more hesitant to compete: They feel closer to the failure than they do to the success. Nobody likes to fail and have their self-esteem thwarted. Thus competition is a serious threat. 

When we think we might fail we do our best to minimize the impact, since we are still trying to avoid getting hurt. Evolution has produced a lot of coping mechanisms for threats, most of which end in flight when the threat is too big. Humans at their core are still mammals, and we cannot physically flee most competitive threats (even if it is “just” societal conventions restraining us), so we have to stay and defend ourselves.  Defence is reactive rather than active and its first goal is always survival, or less extreme: security. If one’s primary goal in a competition is security, they are not likely to take risks, even if they might pay off more. They are more inhibited. Reactive and passive are both antonyms to active, depending on the context, so it is reasonable to conclude that defence is the main motivator behind a passive coping strategy. 

However, if an individual starts seeing competition as a threat due to a series of failures, they will most likely adopt a passive coping strategy as a part of a defence mechanism. Passive coping strategies have been related to worse performances during competitions and tend to result in more failure. That points towards a viscous cycle forming. 

Taking all of that into account, it becomes clear that there are no clear lines drawn between all the factors influencing competition and whether it evokes positive or negative emotions. The human psyche is complex and unique. Nevertheless, it can be reasonably argued that the learning curve a human goes through is heavily driven by real past experiences and will always influence future decisions, since they have to made based on the individual’s current knowledge. In extreme cases, this can spiral out of control since defensive stances may lead to minimized successes in competition which in turn will be seen as a threat in the future due to its negative impact on one’s self-esteem. 



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