Productive Discussions: Comparing Kohn and Garcia et al

Our third chapter by Kohn, “Is Competition More Productive?”, tackles another (supposed) myth about competition: namely, that competition not only improves productivity but is perhaps its only instigator. Garcia et al’s article, “The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective,” on the other hand, forwards and reinterprets the social comparison model of competition, distinguishing between individual and situational factors’ influence on competition. On the surface, Kohn and Garcia et al appear to be doing very different things, and may be imagined in opposition to each other. After all, Kohn is adding another piece to his anti-competition argument, while Garcia et al, instead, is positing a psychological model of competition. However, I think it is possible to synthesize these two articles, on account of their similar definitions of competition, their mutual positioning of productivity and cooperation, and Garcia et al’s citations.

We know from Kohn’s previous chapters that he holds an altogether different definition of competition from some other scholars on the topic, such as Werron. When reading “The Psychology of Competition,” I found myself thinking that Garcia et al appeared to be operating under a definition of competition closer to Kohn’s than to Werron’s. For instance, Garcia et al compares how relative “competitiveness” will be different between students graded on a curve versus an absolute scale. Under Werron’s definition, grading on an absolute scale would not even count as competition, because it does not on rely on scarcity. In Kohn’s chapter, much of his argument relies on the assertion that “trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things” (55). For example, Kohn says that setting goals for achievements or skill mastery need not include competition at all—to call back to Werron’s definition again, things such as skill mastery would not be considered competition at all, because these are not zero-sum scenarios. Because of these instances, I think Kohn and Garcia et al are using similar definitions of the term competition.

Apart from perhaps similar understandings of the term “competition,” Kohn and Garcia et al do have rather different purposes to their arguments. From reading his previous chapters, we know that Kohn is mounting an overarching argument as to the negative qualities of competition, while the negative or positive attributes of competition don’t overly figure into Garcia et al’s article. As Sydney says in their post, Garcia et al are “not arguing for people to stop competing” in this paper, in contradistinction to Kohn (as well as Hutcheon and Bateson). Indeed, as Sydney notes, it appears that Garcia et al’s purpose is oriented towards arguing the usefulness of their model, rather than the usefulness of discarding competition.

However, just because the positive or negative consequences of competition are not part of Garcia et al’s formal argument does not mean that they are entirely ignored, or that Garcia et al’s argument is in opposition to Kohn’s. Garcia et al does mention, for instance, that in some situations being cooperative is more productive than being competitive, and so it is important that people have a comprehensive understanding of the conditions under which competition is encouraged (see page 643). In fact, Garcia et al cites Kohn himself on page 644, on the possible detrimental effects of competition in educational situations. It was this citation that initially began my thinking about the possible convergences between Kohn and Garcia et al. By citing Kohn, Garcia et al is helping to cement Kohn’s work in the academic zeitgeist, as argumentatively sound, suitably rigorous, and relevant to Garcia et al’s paper. At least, that is what I believe is implied when one cites someone else’s work. I think comparing Kohn and Garcia et al in this way is a productive way to interrogate their respective positions, which, as I have argued, are more similar than they may appear on the surface.

(Featured picture was taken from here.)


  1. This was enjoyable to read for it was well thought out and organized. I like the connection you made with from Kohn and Garcia’s definition of competition, and connecting it with Werron’s definition as well for it was not something I would have picked up. I would have to agree with you that Garcia is helping Kohn’s work by citing him in his article and your post shaped it clear as to where Kohn and Garcia stand respectively.


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