Is Competition Really Stressful? Is It Bad If It Is? Possible Limitations to Bucker Et Al.’s Experiment

“How stressful are economic competitions in the lab? An investigation with physiological measures”, written by Buckert, Schwieren, Kudielka, and Fiebach, studies the effects of competition in economics on physiological stress. Unlike other papers we have read this term, this one conducts its own research and experiment, while it uses previous resources to support their paper. Their specific study, conducted in a lab, uses an economic tournament game to test if it will elicit a stress response. Ultimately, their goal was to determine whether or not competition causes stress which may or may not be detrimental to one’s health. This article is written for a psychology paper, thus for an audience of psychologist and psychology students; however, since every person experiences stress and some amount of competition, I think it can be read and understood by people from any discipline.

The fact that they conducted their own experiment made the article much more interesting. It eliminated biases from previous research, and it made me as the reader feel as though they wanted to come up with their own conclusions from their own work. It was definitely easy to tell they were taking an objective approach. Even though something like stress is extremely subjective and personal. Because stress takes many different forms and can affect some people in certain situations more than others, the fact that their study was conducted in a lab setting, is the only downfall to their creative approach. Conducting this study in a lab definitely makes it a clear sky, idyllic scenario. Certainly, other stressors in life influence the amount of stress a person feels when dealing with competition. Additionally, being put in a lab can either stress someone out or make them feel more calm because they know it is not a real life scenario. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not the stress they were recording was caused by the game or perhaps the environment they were in.

Additionally, when the results found that stress was less when competition was seen as a challenge as opposed to a threat, the concept of subjectivity came up again. Whether or not someone determines competition as threatening is very dependent on their personality and difficult to define through lab experiment. Perhaps they perceived the lab environment as threatening, or maybe it was the competition – it would be difficult to tell. The variable of setting and subjectivity are key limitations in the research.

Lastly, while the researchers did find that competition lead to physiological stress responses (i.e. elevated heart rate, higher cortisol, higher testosterone levels), since no one had a heart attack or a mental breakdown, the stress they experienced could arguably be beneficial and not detrimental. Your heart rate increases when you exercise, but everyone knows that exercise is good for you. It has been pretty much widely accepted that a little bit of stress can increase productivity and give people motivation to do better. So perhaps the stress they found in this economic game helps people do better work. There would definitely need to be a bit more research to determine whether the limited amount of stress they measured in this experiment, due to competition, is in fact bad for people’s overall health.

Debating whether stress is good or bad is very similar to debating whether competition is good or bad. Bateson’s and Hutcheon’s articles both engage in this competition debate. Bateson in particular sees competition as inherently bad and cooperation as a much more productive and healthy way to go through life. As zteufel explained, Bateson described competition as “the driving factor of society’s downfall”. She claims we started with cooperation as little babies and should continue to cooperate with others throughout life, not compete against others. She really does not seem to consider the healthy amount of competition that might make people more productive (similar to the healthy amount of stress). Since both stress and perceived competition are pretty subjective, it does not seem like one person’s opinion applies to everyone. I suggest that there is no one way to define stress, or healthy stress, or competition for every person, because everyone seems pretty different.   

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  1. Interesting analysis!

    I liked the points you brought up about how the lab environment affects the results of the experiment. In relation to the points about healthy and unhealthy stress, although there is not set good and bad levels of stress, there has been research done to show the negative effects of stress that accompany a large heart rate increase and a release of cortisol. The overall effect comes down to whether the individuals adapted an active or passive coping style, something mentioned in the research paper. I believe the economic competition has a positive or negative effect on the individual depending on what type of coping style they use.


  2. Hello, I really like your article and I enjoy reading it! I read a psychology research paper about stress affects our mental and physical health. Too much stress will cause devastating damage, however if we don’t have stress at all will also cause several issues, such as no motivation doing anything. Right amount of stress tunes up the brain and improves performance and health.


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