It’s Not All Fun and Games: A Critical Assessment of Berg’s Argument on Business and Competition

Using the Red-Blue Exercise (RBE) that is based on the classic model of the prisoner’s dilemma, Roberta Berg draws questionable conclusions about the nature of competitive reflexes in the corporate context in “Cooperation and Competition: The Wisdom to Know When”. While I initially found the idea of this exercise to be thought provoking, Berg’s lack of credible evidence and oversimplified conceptualization of human nature led me to question the validity of her argument more than any paper we have read in class thus far. 

To the author’s credit, I want to emphasize that I don’t disagree with every point she made and actually found parts of the article very interesting. The overarching claim, being that important decisions must be made through process of rational thought instead of “knee-jerk” reactions, is one that I can stand behind and intuitively makes sense. I also thought that her point about competition being mutually destructive was well illustrated, mentioning that the only way to win the game is for both teams to consistently cooperate with one another. In these instances, it is not so much the nature of the claim itself that I have a problem with, but rather the way in which it was made. We can all agree that a cooperative environment is typically more desirable than a competitive one, but the extent to which Berg actually demonstrated that cheating in this exercise is reflective of the cut-throat nature of business was underwhelming to say the least.

I hope I’m not the only one who was somewhat confused about the way in which Berg presented her evidence about the Red-Blue Exercise. Trying to figure out if her descriptions of the RBE were hypothetical or anecdotal, both of which are poor sources of credibility, weakened both the valid points and structure of her argument. I personally found a lot of the claims of the paper to be the author’s opinions that were stated as fact, the most notable example being that “we are programmed to be competitors”. Her lack of sources indicates a lack of support for such a bold claim, and completely underrepresents the contexts in which we have a natural tendency to cooperate with one another. In fact, authors such as Molina et al. would argue the very opposite, and say that people are fundamentally altruistic that can be seen from examining ancestral hunter-gatherer population. Even if we take her example of the RBE for fact, saying that people’s tendency to cheat in this carefully controlled and simple situation can be applied to more complex contexts is very reductionistic. Like Louismentioned in his post, negotiating a high-stakes business decision involves so many more factors, such as worker incentive, that goes beyond the scope of the Red-Blue Exercise. 

I think questioning the author’s opinion of the role of competition in general evokes an interesting lens through which to critically assess this paper. Though she mentions several times that business requires both competition and cooperation, it’s unclear to me how her claims about the RBE fit into this idea. Unlike other areas of life such as education, competition has a very legitimate and constructive place in the realm of business. As Werron mentioned, the idea of Adam Smith’s invisible hand serves to regulate the price and quality of consumer goods that results in societal benefit. Berg appears to take the stance, however, that cheating in the RBE reveals something inherently negative about the cheater. I’ll agree that the cut-throat mentality is nothing but harmful in the context of colleague communication, but what Berg fails to address is the usefulness of strategic negotiation in competing with other corporations. Had she made this distinction clearer, I think her argument would have been much stronger and overall more unified. 

Work Cited:

Berg: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1080569910365894

Molina et al.: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8322.12323

Werron: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1600910X.2015.1049190

Image: https://au.fotolia.com/tag/ink

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your post, you pointed out holes in Berg´s argument structure that were not apparent to me when I read that article.

    To add to your post, I would say it is a good thing that we had one more reading to do this week, Tepper´s Myths of Capitalism. Putting these two readings together serves well to cover some of the holes in Berg´s arguments by showing us the ´real bussiness´ side of things, A.K.A. how the cheating behaviors demonstrated in the Red-Blue Exercise lead the economy to ruin when abused at the hands of high-ranking CEOs.

    As far as anecdotal evidence goes, I believe Berg´s results were based on the most common outcomes of each of the games she analyzed with different teams, giving them statistical validity that however wasn´t present in her findings. I agree that she could have done a better job at making her findings scientifically relevant, although question remains if that is what was the purpose of her article, since it did not seem like your typical research paper. In that case, if she was only trying to make a point about untimely competition, I found her anecdotal evidence to be sufficient.

    Again, thank you for offering me some new perspectives on the readings.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your post, the critique of Berg’s paper and the insight you provided for the holes in her argument were interesting. I agree that her lack of sources were confusing and it did seem that she was failing to represent arguments for our tendencies to cooperate. You mentioned that competition in business has a legitimate and constructive place unlike in education and I was just wondering what your reasons are for this claim?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your reply! I guess my reasoning is that competition in business can be a driving force of better products being placed on the market. Using Werron’s definition of competition, that it has to be two or more parties competing for a scarce resource, competition in the realm of business makes sense as the scarce resource can be considered the consumers. Competition in the classroom, such as competing for grades, arguably is not a scarce resource and in my opinion is more harmful than helpful for those competing. Like we talked about last week, students can become more focused on the grades rather than the process of learning, essentially undermining the whole purpose of getting an education in the first place.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree, after listening in class today I think I may have misunderstood the purpose of her choices considering the context of the discourse community. I still find the overall structure of her argument to be quite unsupported, but I really appreciate you offering me a new perspective about her evidence!

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