A New Psychology Paper Shows How Competition Can Undermine Goal Achievement

A psychology paper published online by the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology on January 19, is particularly relevant to our discussions, not in the least because it specifically builds on the research by Garcia et al that we are reading. The abstract for the paper is pasted below, and I have added the paper to Canvas as a supplemental reading in case you are interested in taking a look at it. (If you look it up on the library’s web site, there is an mp3 audible version available — though I haven’t been able to get that to work.)

When individual goal pursuit turns competitive: How we sabotage and coast. By: Huang, Szu-chi, Lin, Stephanie C., Zhang, Ying, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 00223514, 20190121

ABSTRACT: People working toward individual goals often find themselves surrounded by others who are pursuing similar goals, such as at school, in fitness classes, and through goal-oriented network devices like Fitbit. This research explores when these individual goal pursuits can turn into competitions, why it happens, and the downstream consequences of this pseudocompetition on goal pursuers. We found that people were more likely to treat their goal pursuit as a competition when they were near the end (vs. at the beginning) of their individual goal and, thus, prioritized relative positional gain (i.e., performing better than others sharing similar pursuits) over making objective progress on their own goal, sabotaging others when they had the opportunity to do so (Studies 1–3B). Further, we provided evidence that certainty of goal attainment at a high (vs. low) level of progress drove this shift in focus, leading to such sabotage behaviors (Studies 3A and 3B). Ironically, success in gaining an upper hand against others in these pseudocompetitions led individuals to subsequently reduce their effort in their own pursuits (Studies 1–5). Six experiments captured a variety of competitive behaviors across different goal domains (e.g., selecting games that diminished others’ prospects, selecting difficult questions for fellow students).

Image credit: https://news.softpedia.com/news/Dirty-Tutorial-How-to-Sabotage-the-Competition-simple-methods-65618.shtml


  1. Thanks for the post Micheal.

    It’s interesting how competition crops up here even without an explicit artificial zero-sum game. There is no scarce resource at all. Our social comparisons are creating artificial zero-sum games wherever we go.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between interdependence versus independence oriented cultures and I’d be interested to see many of these studies preformed in those cultures. Does our culture, being a very independence oriented one, inculcate us with this ranking method? It seems like we rank everything, music, movies, cameras, pumpkins, and on and on – now we’ve moved on to personal goals.

    Kohn tries to argue against the inevitability of competition as a social form, but might social comparison be part of human nature? In line with evolutionary and social psychology, in order to have a strong social group it seems like all members would have to self-regulate how useful they are to the group based on what everyone else is doing. It is theorized that self-esteem is a socio-meter, that is to say, the anxiety that goes along with low self-esteem may act as a motivator to be more liked and critically analyze actions that may be abrasive to group interaction.

    To relate this to Kohn chapter 3 and social psychology further, individual goals are often intrinsically motivated. Turning this into a competition turns it from intrinsic to extrinsic, which research shows, and Kohn argues, reduces quality. This evidently supports this, showing that it also reduces effort once the upper-hand is gained.

    Since this study shows a bit of a backfire effect, and if social-comparison is natural, might social-comparison be amplified because of our culture? (this is why I’d be interested to see data from other cultures). Not only do we try to sabotage others, we’re happy simply being better than others which causes less effort overall even though the goals of others in this case don’t interfere with our goal (unless our goal has become to be number 1 and not the original goal). My questions for further research would be along the lines of: must social-comparison have these negative side effects i.e. is it because of our culture that social comparison has gotten out of hand? Or is social-comparison and the negative effects human nature, is the mission to remedy the side effects?


  2. The last question there was a bit unclear. Here’s a rewording: Or, if social comparison and the negative effects are human nature, is our mission to remedy the side effects?


  3. Good questions, Cole. I don’t have the answers, but I can point out that Kohn specifically argues that social comparison does not necessarily entail competition. Given his specific definition of competition (ie, mutually exclusive goal attainment), I can compare myself or my performance with that of another without feeling any need to be “better” than them, even if that comparison elicits a motivation for improvement. So even if social comparison is a human universal (and I think that is likely given what we typically mean by “social”), competition (or at lease Kohn’s version of it) doesn’t need to be. But that’s exactly why these cultural factors you’re pointing become so important.


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