What Causes Competition: A Psychological Perspective

Competition within institutions is ubiquitous. This is often referred to as a “zero-sum game”, where when an individual’s gain is inevitably accompanied by another individual’s loss. When one considers how the incentive structures within institutions initiate immense competition for achieving the highest grades, it is evident that there will always be those who attempt to outperform their peers as an attempt to climb up the ladder of superiority. This therefore establishes a hierarchy, which ultimately leads to a natural increase in an individuals’ concerns regarding their position within such hierarchy. Through a review article published for the Association for Psychological Science, Garcia et al. attempts to provide a more analytical and objective stance as to why competition exists in the first place by proposing a social comparison model of competition to identify the psychological forces that motivate competition. Furthermore, as the article’s aim is to further research regarding the incentives of competition, the authors integrate prior research as a means to strengthen their arguments. Although both Garcia et al. and Hutcheon include prior research as evidence and touch on factors that influence competitive behavior, the aim of their studies is inherently different. This is due to the fact that Hutcheon argues for a side, asserting that cooperation ultimately triumphs competition. However, Garcia et al.’s paper (written for a scientific community that values objective data) is intended to deepen one’s understanding of the topic rather than to persuade one to pick sides.

In regards to the social comparison model, Garcia et al. addresses the main cause of competition as social comparison, and identifies two main factors that provide an explanation as to how social comparisons can drive competition. The two main factors are the individual and situational factors. While individual factors focus on variable individual differences pertaining to social comparison, situational factors concern the individual’s perception of the surrounding social environment, and consider factors that are applicable to individuals who are similar. Individual factors include (1) the relevance of the individual’s performance in a certain field, (2), the individual’s similarity to the targeted competitor, and (3) the degree to which the individual is closely acquainted with the target. Situational factors include (1) the individual’s proximity to a standard, (2) the number of competitors, and (3) social category fault lines. The study therefore attempts to connect the variables stemming from these two factors, then suggests that these variables are the incentives that cause social comparison, thus competition. @marierohmova mentions the importance of a situational variable concerning an individual’s proximity to the standard and explains how it can potentially affect one’s mindset in approaching competition. Proximity to the standard refers to comparison concerns regarding a meaningful qualitative threshold in relation to the standard of one’s relative standing within similar individuals. This means that top students may be more motivated to achieve top grades than weaker students; thus top students may outperform their peers. Furthermore, a top student’s motivator for maintaining top grades is often due to a need to maintain their status on the top rung of the academic ladder, thus inducing social comparisons between individuals and peers of a similar level.  

While it is evident that competition due to social comparison is apparent in institutions across the world, cultural differences may spark disparities between an individual’s attitude towards competition due to cultural values. I believe that @marierohmova’s points regarding institutions pertain more to a western approach of learning, as she discusses about competition within UBC. She mentions that competitive programs such as psychology constantly pit students against each other, as they attempt to outperform one another for the purpose of maintaining superiority over their peers. The western approach of learning encourages more promotion-focused mentalities, which focus on pursuing the top spots. Thus, individuals who are part of competitive institutions such as UBC may be subject to a more promotion-focused way of thinking, meaning that they may be motivated near the top of the hierarchy. This therefore causes them to be more driven to get ahead of the competition. On the other hand, I believe that individuals from Asian countries such as Japan tend to exhibit prevention-focused mentalities, meaning that they are more concerned with not falling behind than getting ahead of the competition. This may be because the Japanese society values image, competence and conformity, suggesting that individuals may be afraid of falling behind due to the immense amount of stigma that they receive for being shameful and incompetent in relation to the standard. Their desire to not drop below the standards may overpower their desire to compete for the top. This therefore indicates that the Japanese may be more motivated to compete when they are ranked in the bottom, unlike their American counterparts. The contrast between Western and Asian attitudes towards competition thus elucidates how the situational factor of proximity to a standard is evident across the globe; however, it manifests itself in dichotomous ways due to different values within cultures.  

            Garcia et al.’s study sheds light on the fundamental causes of social comparison and competition by examining the individual and situational factors that induce comparison and competition. Moreover, it is apparent that many individual and situational factors exist in institutions worldwide; however, using the data from the study, one can speculate that perhaps the manifestations of such factors may differ due to variety in cultural values. The motivators for individuals of different countries may be quite different, as different cultures foster different values that can ultimately shape an individual’s mindset. Therefore, although social comparison and competition are ubiquitous within institutions worldwide, perhaps the motivators for competition are partly culture-dependent.


Garcia, Stephen M., et al. “The Psychology of Competition.” Perspectives on Psychological          Science, vol. 8, no. 6, 2013, pp. 634–650., doi:10.1177/1745691613504114.

Hutcheon, L. “RHETORIC AND COMPETITION: Academic Agonistics.” Common Knowledge, vol. 9,            no. 1, 2003, pp. 42–49., doi:10.1215/0961754x-9-1-42.

Link to @marierohmova’s post: https://mschandorf.ca/2019/01/28/ubc-grade-curving-and-competition/


  1. Thank you for your post!

    I first wanted just to clarify very briefly that the psychology doesn’t necessarily pit students against one another, in fact, I have found that there were many circumstances in which the professors and faculty of psychology at UBC have attempted to facilitate cooperation with the purpose of learning in mind. Many professors use two-stage exams to aid in the students learning and retention of knowledge, as well as an opportunity to increase grades as the group portion of a two-stage exam, is worth 10% of the mark (but doesn’t hurt you if you end up getting a better mark than the group.

    As you eluded to, eastern countries are found to be typically much more interdependent than the independent nature of western cultures. This cultural difference is reflected by the points that you spoke about how eastern countries, especially Asian countries, tend to be more focused towards collectivism and group development. An interesting study was conducted comparing the promotion and prevention focuses of Canadians and an Asian population. They found that Canadians had a promotion focus and put more effort into tests when they were given positive feedback and tried to ameliorate their scores the second time around. In contrast, the prevention-focused Asian population put more effort into their testing a second time around when they had performed poorly to prevent another poor score.

    These are just some thoughts that came to mind as I was reading your post! Otherwise, it was very well done, thanks once again for your post!


  2. Hi there!

    I love your analysis of Western vs Japanese academic culture; I agree that Western academics have become a battle to get ahead, whereas other cultures focus on individual success or not falling behind. It is particularly interesting that we are discussing the psychological reactions to educational systems as Michael introduces the research paper. He described the development of our research questions as a sort of “flipping our minds inside out,” in that we are not asked to make a claim and find evidence to support it, but rather discover some topic that we want to learn, and from there use pre-existing evidence to develop a claim and support it with research. By presenting the project in this way, Michael is literally demonstrating a learning-based academic atmosphere, as opposed to a competitive, comparative atmosphere. We are simply building on what we currently know and using our curiosity as a motivator.

    Great post, you did a great job of using a broad perspective to approach the presentation of your information!

    – Ava


  3. Hi cc1218503,
    Thanks for this brilliant reading response! I found that you mentioned that “situational factors concern the individual’s perception of the surrounding social environment, and consider factors that are applicable to individuals who are similar”. By contrast of individual factors, I mistook the concept of situational factor and thought they are universally applicable. However, after reading the social category fault lines part, I realized it is more like “factors that are applicable to individuals who are similar and based on perception”. When top students take tests, they might only consider the competitors who have the equivalent level of skills and knowledge as a member of N. All the situational effect are partially subjective!
    And second, I’m agree with you that psychology department encourages students to compete with each other by curving the grades. After all, there is no conflict between encouraging competition and cooperation at the time. UBC’s psychology department does have high ranking in the world, and is attractive to numerous students. Since the resources (e.g. number of graduate students they accept each year) they can offer are limited, competition is inevitable. As students what we can do is taking chance to cooperate together and compete with each other with respect.


  4. Hello @crunn52, thank you so much for responding to my post!
    It’s interesting that you brought up how faculties and professors actually facilitate cooperation. This really brings in a new perspective on how institutions can actually promote cooperation, unlike what we read in a several studies (such as Hutcheon’s.) Perhaps some degree of competition within and among institutions is inevitable; however, it is great to see a different perspective in how institutions are not always all about competition.
    Regarding your second comment, thank you for elaborating more on promotion vs prevention focused mindsets! Yes, I also agree that Asian countries are more focused on collectivism compared to other countries, and that may drive a lot of their values that influence their mindsets.
    Thank your for your comment! You provided a lot of new insight on the topic.


  5. Hello Ava, thank you for your response!
    I’m also quite interested in the psychology of education, and it’s nice that you pointed out how cooperation can exist within educational systems. As you pointed out, it is interesting to look at developing research questions as cooperative instead of competitive. “Discovering” more about a topic seems more process than result oriented, and perhaps that plays a role in how developing research questions is more cooperative than competitive in essence. I’m reminded of Hutcheon’s paper, where she mentions how current education systems sometimes abuse the importance of critical thinking and use it as a means of competition. Relating to Hutcheon’s paper, I agree with you that developing research questions is more about learning, and how curiosity can motivate us to develop a greater understanding of the world.

    Thanks again for your response.


  6. Hello, @chuxuanz. Thank you for your comment!
    Thanks for elaborating on why the psychology department has a lot of competition. I suppose that grade curving combined with high ranking and resources can induce a huge amount of competition. I am however also curious about ways in which the faculty can potentially promote more competition, or the ways in which cooperation can exist in such competitive environments. I agree with you that as students, it would be great if we can both cooperate and compete with each other with respect.
    Thanks again for your comment and providing more insight regarding competition in the faculty of psychology!


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