Response to Garcia et al

(apologies for this turning out longer than expected!)

Garcia et al’s The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective argues for the idea that social comparison is directly related to competition in humans. It does so by presenting the existing research in the field of psychology that has shown the effects of certain individual and situational factors leading to comparison concerns, outlining the methods used and how they’ve drawn the connection between social comparison and competition, and presenting future research questions that could shed more light on this theory of competitive behavior.

The individual factors outlined are relevance of the dimension of competition to the person who is competing (so how much the person cares about what they’re competing about), similarity of the person competing and their rival, and closeness of the relationship between the person competing and their rival. The authors point out that there has been a focus on individual factors, which they believe to be why the social comparison perspective for competition has not been more accepted in the field of psychology – individual characteristics are less generalizable, so provide less predictive power. As such, situational factors are introduced: incentive structures (as in how the situation is built to give reward, eg. a zero-sum game vs a stag hunt-type game), proximity to a standard (how close the person/group that is competing is to being in 1st place or some other cutoff point), number of competitors, and social category fault lines (whether person/group that is competing sees in-group and out-group dynamics at play). Because situational factors are more generalizable, as they apply to situations and not individual differences, the authors believe that further exploration of situational factors could lead to greater acceptance of the social comparison approach to competition in psychology. This is consistent with the normative structures of the field, as one of the big goals of psychology is to find generalizably predictive results – results that can reliably apply to human beings as a whole rather than groups with specific characteristics.

The evidence for the argument that social comparison is tied to competition is given in form of citation to specific studies, explaining the study how the was conducted – again we see the normative structures of the field of psychology at play here, backing the evidence because these studies are using agreed-upon experimental psychology methods that include the use of confederates, the occasional use of deception, and manipulation of the instructions or priming material given to the subjects for different groups. Given the methodology and results of the studies, the psychologists reading the paper can see how the manipulations of the factors explored led to the social comparisons, and consequently the competitive behavior.

One point to make is that the distinction between social comparison and competition was not as clear as it could be. The authors claim that social comparison is what leads to competition, but not all of the studies presented take the reader all the way through how the result of the study draws a connection between social comparison and competition. This may be because some more familiarity with the field is assumed – seeing how this was published in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal, it would not be out of the question to assume that the reader would be able to draw their own links between the two in the studies where the explicit comparison is missing. sydneychapman18948067 has also made this observation about the audience – especially in the use of jargon from the field. As someone who has taken psychology classes before, I hadn’t noticed how restrictive the use of jargon could be in understanding the paper, so their post adds another layer to suggest that a psychology audience is what was expected for this paper. Further, in terms of the increase in comparison concerns as the number of competitors increases or decreases, I believe there are alternate explanations that were not considered here, including the fact that less competitors make winning seem more attainable, which could explain the competitive behavior as there is more of an incentive to actually try to win if you think you might come out victorious. Naturally, the authors will prioritize finding evidence for their own arguments, but I felt that Garcia et al were quite consistently pointing out alternate explanations in other examples, but not in this one.

Comparing to other readings, specifically Werron, we can see differences starting with the first sentence of Garcia et al: “Competitions are ubiquitous.” We’ve talked a lot in class about how the idea of competition as all-permeating and natural is a “fact” that’s often thrown around with little evidence to support it. Garcia et al. use it quite casually, as a quick introduction to why they look at competition at all, when really that statement in itself inspired an entire paper from Werron, where he analyzes the diffusion of the idea of competition through society, finding the origin point of this idea of ever-present competition, as we and Garcia et al. seem to see it today, in economics. Clearly the differences arise because they are looking at different facets of competition: while Werron looks for how the “construct” of competition has evolved in society, Garcia et al. look for the psychological mechanisms that naturally lead humans to competition. To me, however, this shows a fundamental difference in their thinking, as one could argue that Garcia et al.’s paper makes the assumption that the ubiquitousness of competition can truly be explained by human nature (in their case, they believe it is through social comparisons), while Werron does everything BUT assume that. The definitions used by both papers may also be differing here- while Werron spends the entire paper justifying his new definition of competition as “the struggle for the favor of a third party”, we never see this third party mentioned in Garcia et al. until the side-point of the presence of an audience is made. Garcia et al. deal mostly with tangible rewards, such as money given to participants of the psychological studies they cite – in the context of psychology research, this makes a lot of sense, as tangible rewards generally have values that are more generalizable. For example, most people can agree that $20 has a certain value, as you can use that money to buy whatever you want for $20, while “the favor of a third party” may be something that some people value greatly, while others show no regard for, so it creates a confound when studying psychology.

3 Comments

  1. Hi there! I think you have a very interesting point about numbers of competitors. You inspired me on this point. I think the alternative interpretation you mentioned actually explained why people tended to compete harder with less people. As you pointed out, people could be taking the goal as more attainable. Yet Garcia et al put this factor under category of situational factors. But according to your interpretation, I believe it belongs to individual factors rather than situational factors. It may appear to be situational factors because number seems to be related with other people directly. Nevertheless, it is the fluctuation of number of competitors that changes the mentality of participants. I agree with that point.

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  2. First off, thank you for sharing that image. 10/10. I think comparing Garcia et Al to Werron was very interesting, particularly the focus on their different approaches to a single subject. I agree that the idea of competition is subjective and vague, and that the notion of it being a natural part of society is held up as a common sense fact without empirical evidence to support the claim. As you mentioned, both Werron and Garcia et Al use different definitions of competitions to make their respective claims. However, I think that they both had evidence to back up their definitions through use of different reference sources.

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