The Transcendence of Hostility

Both Roberta Berg and Alfie Kohn discuss the idea that the hostility competitors feel for each other in an isolated competitive setting can transcend the situation and be realized in other aspects of their lives. I will argue that the propensity to view situations as pieces of a puzzle, and indications of a person’s character, rather than isolated incidents is what creates hostility outside of the competitive arena.

To begin, Berg’s discussion of ethics in “Competition and Cooperation: The Wisdom to Know When,” deals with the issue of competitors lying, cheating, and betraying each other in the Red-Blue exercise. Berg argues that when a person takes part in these unethical behaviors because they view the exercise as “just a game,” they are actually revealing something about their character (Berg, 186). While I do personally agree that something (whether it be significant or not) about this person’s character is revealed, I also think that immediately concluding that a person who lies, cheats, and betrays others in what they perceive to be a game, would do the same in a situation that they take to be more serious, is slightly rash. I think that just because they act this way in a situation that they perceive to be low-stakes, it does not mean that they are incapable of being trustworthy in a situation that holds higher stakes. While this idea may sound naïve, I believe it is very easy to preemptively make assumptions about other people’s character based on isolated incidents, and let these cloud all future judgements made about them. I think that if one were to observe the Red-Blue exercise and make judgements about each competitor’s character, he/she would find that he/she may have too quickly and too harshly decided that certain people are untrustworthy and unethical, while the reality may have been that their actions were unethical. From here, one would need to decide whether or not they believe that a person’s actions in every situation are what defines their character. I find montylussow’s claim that “the Red-Blue experiment reveals more about the values of business culture than it does about human nature” very interesting, and I think that this can be applied to the idea of separating the action from the individual. In the Red-Blue exercise, participants are simulating a decision-making situation that is not necessarily representative of how they conduct themselves in their everyday lives, nor does it clearly portray their moral compass. It shows how they act in a given situation. Montylussow’s claim emphasizes the idea that the actions one takes in this exercise may not accurately represent the character of its participants. If one decided that they do not view actions in isolated incidents as an indicator of another person’s character, they may find that they do not experience the transcendence of hostility towards this person outside of the competitive arena. This would likely be because they are able to make a separation between one competitive situation and other aspects of life.

Kohn also discusses the idea of hostility escaping the confines of a competitive situation and entering other aspects of life. He argues that “it is a small step from wanting someone else to fail at a particular task to wanting bad things in general for that person” (Kohn, 136). Kohn goes on to say that “I come to associate your disappointment with my pleasure, even when we are not in a zero-sum situation” (Kohn, 136). These statements are significant because Kohn is arguing that even when there is no situation that demands mutually exclusive goal attainment, there is still a sense of hostility that is present. I understood this to be partly because it can become difficult to switch between “competitive mode” and “non-competitive mode.” This ties back to the idea that viewing situations as pieces of a puzzle rather than isolated incidents is what creates hostility outside of the competitive arena. This is because in the scenario that Kohn describes, this person is tying the feelings/emotions that he/she had during the competitive situation to this other person’s life, rather than viewing the two (competitive situation and life) as separate. He/she associates his/her “competitor’s” shortcomings in life with his/her pleasure as a result of this being the case in the competition (where instead of life failures, it was competition failures).

Overall, I am not sure whether or not it would actually be possible to create a clear mental/emotional separation between competitive situations and the other aspects of life. However, I think that if this were possible, it would help relieve the hostility that people may feel when they are no longer actively competing, but rather experiencing life alongside former, present, and future competitors.

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  1. I really appreciate how you balance Berg and Kohn in this post while comparing the results/statements from those authors against your own uncertainty that cheating in competition necessarily reveals a higher truth about a person’s character. I was also skeptical and a little torn over these claims: on the one hand, there must be a difference between the kind of people who cheat and wish others harm in a competition versus the ones who don’t, but on the other hand, Kohn and Berg seem to be taking these intuitions and blowing them up. Berg does an actual study that reveals how participants in the Red Blue exercise behave, but there isn’t a sure-fire way to link this back about something basic in these participants’ character, the same way Kohn’s statements about wanting to win (and thus hoping someone else will lose) in a zero-sum game leads to general bad wishes towards other people isn’t truly supported.

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  2. You hit on something here that is a real phenomenon common enough to our psychologies that it is given a name and a fairly large role in social psychology: The fundamental attribution error. This is our tendency to overestimate internal factors and underestimate external factors when explaining the behaviour of other people. In other words, when other people do bad things we think it’s because it is who they are as a person, but for ourselves we often attribute it to the situation, and factors outside of our control. People vary along this scale, we aren’t fooling ourselves constantly, but I think situations shape our actions more than we admit.

    For many problems in our society, people are driven to do bad things because of the situation. Many criminals are pushed to do illegal things because the system isn’t working for them. More radically, I think that even those who are genuinely evil are at the whim of their genes and their environment and cant really be ‘blamed’. Of course, it is still necessary to rectify the system and do what it takes to either help them or keep them from harming others.

    That’s a little off topic, but the point is, I think you’re right. Its rash to say cheating and lying in this context says something about their personality. It says more about the context in which they are put, a place where competition is norm and cheating isn’t considered so morally bad sometimes. Some people may be compelled to cheat or lie in competitive situations because that is the norm and peers are pushing each-other in that direction. It’s easy to judge someone for cheating and let that influence your idea of their character, but its often a very complex interplay of norms, framing, stakes, peers, etc… Furthermore, it’s easy to justify your own cheating to yourself by blaming the situation. Both aren’t okay. We shouldn’t judge others too harshly and we shouldn’t believe that things are all okay because its “just the situation”. People and situations have a complex relationship. I think we could do well to understand the situation’s complexity more fully and how it influences us in unknown ways. Understanding that we engage in this attribution error might relieve some hostility as well.

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  3. I would just like to acknowledge that you started your response with a fairly good summary of Berg and Alfie Kohn’s view of a correlation between competition and character given the competitive setting, and I wanted to share that I agree that the assertion of how individuals behave in a game-like setting of competition can be viewed as an example of how they would behave in a a more serious competitive setting, is a stretch. Acts of betrayal, dishonesty, and cheating in the game-like setting are to be said as replicated in a more serious setting which is supposed to be insightful and concerning, but as you said in your second paragraph, its irrational to make large conclusions to a persons character given its isolated situation, especially in a gam-like setting. It may reveal some things about the individuals character, just not conclusive or a large indicator of who they are. Many situation and circumstances make us the complex beings we are, not one.

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  4. @dcorrech & @xlblake: Thank you both for your comments! I’m glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who was unsure of some of the claims being made in these readings. I think that Berg and Kohn make interesting points, but I would agree with you that there is still uncertainty with whether applying how someone acts in an exercise to their broader character is truly accurate.


  5. @ColeVonn: Hi Cole, thanks for sharing your psychology insights! I find this idea of the fundamental attribution error really interesting, and I can absolutely see how it would be at play in situations like these. I think the idea you propose, that having a greater understanding of the way people are/the complexity of situations might help reduce hostility, is something very plausible. Once people are able to understand and reflect on the attribution error’s role in their lives, I (optimistically) think that they would have greater empathy for other people’s choices (whether they be good or bad). This being said, I also agree with you that it is not right to avoid taking responsibility and simply blame the situation for all unethical decisions.


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