Is Being Competitive a Real Bad Thing? Coping Style Matters

Several years ago, I watched a TED talk “How to make stress your friend” on internet, Kelly McGonigal revealed the enemy of health is the belief that stress is bad for health instead of stress itself just like Buckert et al. studied on the physiological changes induced by well-established economic laboratory competition paradigm, but in a more general and long-term way instead of constrained in laboratory setting in short period. They share the very same idea that how you perceive and appraise the situation associated with the consequences they would cause. This makes me think about the overall negative impression of competition raised from the society. Is competition really a bad thing? At least, I don’t think it is.

The famous Yerkes-Dodson law psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson developed in 1908 draws a relationship between performance and arousal. As people’s physiological and mental arousal increase the performance get better, but when arousal level surpasses certain point, the performance would get worse. It is quite obvious that when people merely aroused, they put little effort and attention to the tasks, no outstanding performance should be expected in this status. On the other hand, when people are over aroused, they would get anxious about the results so much that rational thinking might not happen under such pressure. Therefore, if we perceive the competition in a positive way, embrace it and adjust our response to it, competition can bring out the better and better version of us mentally and physically.

Our body (physiological changes) can adjust our emotion, meanwhile, how the mind works can change the physiological states too. Plenty of literature study on the relationship between C&T levels and competition (e.g. Casto& Edwards 2016). In general, it seems naturally that men are inclined to compete more than women and men are more likely to get aggressive and the aggression affects their thinking during competition. From biological perspective, these can be attributed to the different T&C levels between them. Buckert et al. found the significant interaction of choice group and testosterone(T) & cortisol(C) level. This means people’s perception and willing to compete can lead to different body response under competitive situation.

In this week’s wonderful group presentation, the presented article (Adriaan Kalwij 2018) found out that bronze and gold U.S. Olympic medalists appraise their medals as a win, silver medalists appraise them as a loss (Medvec et al., 1995) and, through the associated psychological stress (Lazarus, 1993), have their health compromised and life expectancy reduced. This finding also supports the idea that the perception and evaluation of competition has more influence on people’s health instead of competition itself.

The perpetuated problem exists for a long time is that people are put into competition against their own will just as @dcorrech mentioned. We are forced to compete in so many situations. For example, young adults who might only want to pursue music dreams still need to engage in the fierce competition for scholarship in order to make sure a reliable job to make a living. This is what the reality compels them to do instead of what they want to do. No wonder, so many people grow aversion from competing with each other and try hard to avoid competitive situations as much as possible.

Indeed, competition can be a good thing to our general health and performance. However, it is undeniable that we don’t really have the agency to choose to involve in competition for most of the time.

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  1. I really liked reading your response, it was well thought out and had lots of information. I was wondering how you think people’s health would be effected if there was suddenly no competition in between people? Do you think that this is even possible? And do you think that having no competition could potentially be harmful to society?


  2. Thank you for this insightful post and for the shout out to our Kalwij presentation.

    Since you’re mentioning the Yerkes-Dodson law, I thought I would add my two cents on what I remember from my AP Psychology course. The model about the competitive Type A and easygoing Type B came into the public’s attention. The research into these personality types suggests that there is a strong link between one’s competitiveness and their risk of developing a cardiovascular disease (Luong, 2017). However, what is not generally known and what my AP textbook said was that there were two other types – Type C, which reacts to stress by withdrawal and closing up, and Type H, or a Hardy person, that is a person with a Type A competitive personality, who however thrives on stress and competition instead of letting it overcome them.
    Do you think this might explain that how we react to stress is either inborn or part of our character? And, as you said, being competitive is not really a bad thing for your health, as long as you have a certain type of personality?


  3. I enjoyed reading your response! I also agree that competition is not bad, to an extent. You mentioned how there is an optimum point for mental arousal to enhance competition. Even though your article focuses on the physiological aspect of competition, I can’t help but think about the other factors. Do you think that the biological process of an individual has a greater contribution to competitive behaviour compared to the other factors (eg. environmental)?


  4. Thank you for that response, I like that you started it off with an outside source for reference that allowed the reader to break the ice for the rest of the post – I enjoyed the video with Kelly McGonigal, very interesting as it shows how the appraisal of stress itself can literally dictate the life expectancy of someone. It’s a Ted Talk that can most definitely benefit most students, as most of us are in a constant state of stress to stay on top of our academics and anybody who sees this reply – go watch it ! I do believe that the notion with how stress is viewed is parallel to the some views of competition, is quite accurate and I think so because of how most of us react to it either short term or long term, viewing or appraising the physiological symptoms of competing undoubtedly includes stress, so perhaps viewing an increase in heart rate, sweaty palms and all the other ‘uncomfortable’ symptoms of competing as something positive rather than impeding our performance, or ultimately something negative. Those physiological reactions could very well be preparing us for optimal performance as well, and theres enough evidence to show that it kind of is, so it may very well be productive to view it as so. So to answer your question in my words, I believe competition is a real bad thing if you appraise it to be and you did a good job of answering that question with that theme, and supplemented it with not only sufficient sources, but good ones in my opinion. Well supported and formatted post.


  5. Thanks for your response! I like it a lot, it refers to a lot of health psychology concept. I am just wondering how do you think it’s going to affect our health if there is no competition in our life? I agree that competition can be good with a certain level and pushed us forward.


  6. @kyransteuart
    Thanks for the comment! Refer to the questions:
    1. I think people who thrive from competitions would suffer from it and people who suffer from competitions might improve their general health. After all competition generates stress, and stress affects people’s health.
    2. If you mean is it no competition exists competition exist possible. Personally, I don’t think so. Unless all resource is not limited at all, in other word, we actually live in a communist society. But, I think communist society is quite 😂, tons of people are lazy and slack, they want to get resource without effort. And asking people who work hard to support the slack ones are unjust.
    3. Definitely. People would stop working harder, and society would stop progressing due to lack of motivation.


  7. Hi @marierohmova
    I think personality plays a really important role in our coping style toward competitions. I think quite a proportion of personality is shaped by the (family/ cultural etc.) environments we are raised in. To individual, personality is quite consistent under lots of situations. But I think the situations still matter a lot. I find out that in the in-class conversation, a lot of students mentioned that they enjoy the competitions they actively choose to involve in (sports etc.), and considered the structured competitions which they are forced to engage in are frustrating and stressful. So I think maybe it is both personality and external situations decide whether competitions are bad for our health.


  8. Hi @cheryl25899
    I think the influence depends on individual coping style and situations. I think it is a really good thing that everyone can get scholarship and have the chance to get into graduate school(daydreaming time!). Personally, in that ideal situation, I can focus more on the subject I’m interested in without struggling with improving my weakness. But on the other hand, I do not have the confidence to say that I would still be motivated as I was and would not go slack, if I know that everyone get the same chance to thrive. If I stop pursuing being better version of myself, I’ll probably develop self-loathing. So I think the absence of competitions can reduce stress but it can put new stress to you too, especially when you value self-actualization a lot.


  9. Thanks for your reply. It was very insightful about how you interpreted this subject. I completely agree with the points you stated.


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