Why We Compete and What We Compete For

Jose_Luis_Nunez_bouldering_in_Ton_Sai_Beach

Much as you might wish to, you cannot avoid competition. But why do we compete? For what do we compete? Here are some answers:

  • The Simplest Answer: We’ve been programmed — hard-wired — by evolution. Those who survived times of limited resources and danger out-foxed the ones who didn’t. The law of the jungle is still evident even among baseball fans grappling for a batted-ball hit into the stands  — a thing, after all, of little real value. Our ancestors were the fittest in the battle for survival, at least if their survival led them to seed the next generation.
  • Glory (Kleos): The ancient Greeks wanted to be recalled in story and song. This was a time before a desirable afterlife had been conceived. Then, as now, the idea of living forever was attractive. Put your name on a tall building, write a book, win the World Cup — they are all the same. Of course, eternity is a long time to last.
  • Desirable Mates: If you triumph in competition you have a wider choice of sexual companions. Again, this was hard-wired in our ancestors long ago, but still drives us. Appearance motivates men more than women. Surprise! The evolutionary explanation is that the proper array of physical features gave prehistoric man the signal of a female’s capacity to give birth and nurse children. Man was driven to produce hardy little ones who would carry his genetic material forward. Thus, he needed a healthy mate.
  • Money, Status, and Power: These are tied to the previous three. We also think (wrongly) that large amounts of such items will make us much happier than the next person. Materialism per se doesn’t, but having the capacity to win those material things registers on the female radar screen more than a man’s good looks. Women are inclined by evolution and instinct to be drawn to those men who can fend for them and future children; not the guy who is passive, weak, deferential, and unaccomplished. In part this is thought due to the prehistoric woman’s physical disadvantage in protecting herself and her children, as well as finding adequate food and shelter when the children were small. The bodily cost and vulnerability of pushing out the next generation is greater for the fair sex than for her mate. No wonder she has been programmed to attend to different things than he does.
  • Triumph Over Aging and Death: Men, in particular, try to keep proving they are strong and virile, the better to keep decrepitude and demise at bay.
  • To Give Yourself Purpose: Striving is compelling. Competition is one of the answers to the question of what to do with your life.
  • Distraction: Games are a way of entertaining oneself — pouring excitement into the vessel of passing time. The joy of the contest is well-known. The male’s achievement of public notice in winning a game, excelling at the guitar, or writing a best-seller is also like the peacock’s spread of his feathers during the mating season, giving him added allure.
  • The Perks of Victory: To the winner go the spoils: a gorgeous home, the latest technical innovation, attractive clothes, etc.
  • Enhanced Self-image: Who dislikes applause? Victory boosts your self-esteem. Only if you place high enough in the race, of course.

512px-BW_2012-08-26_Anna_Stoehr_AUS_0601

  • To Win Friends: Have you ever witnessed what happens when a third child joins two who are playing well together? One of them is frequently the loser in the game of attaining primacy. Feelings are hurt. The value of friends is also based on the survival instinct. Those ancestors who lived “solo” had a more limited chance of survival against aggressive animals, drought, injury, and famine. We observe such team participation in business, sports, defense of your country, and raising your family.
  • Tradition: Some of us carry on practices encouraged by our forebears. Responsibility to those caretakers and ancestors, as well as their encouragement, contributes to continuing a parent’s business, joining the military as did a father and grandfather, or simply playing touch football as was the family’s habit.
  • Personal Growth: One way to feel better about yourself is to meet a challenge. Overcoming insecurities is a kind of contest between you and your fears. Mother Nature is your fearsome opponent when climbing a mountain. There is no trophy for reaching the top, but your sense of achievement doesn’t require one.
  • Caring for Your Children: The offspring need food, clothes, education, and a safe neighborhood in which to live. Moreover, the kids represent your posterity if they seed the future with your genes by having little ones themselves.
  • To Defy the Appearance of Age: Well, we try, don’t we? In effect, we are competing with our younger selves. Our tools? Comb-overs, hair-pieces, hair styles, body-building, cosmetic surgery, and the like. Our duds attempt to disguise the increase of natural defects as the body declines. We even fool ourselves with names: the grandmother who requires that she be called “Nana,” not grandma, for example.* “All is vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.
  • The Race Against Time: Here is an opponent we cannot beat, yet we make the effort. Most of us do our best to cram as much “life” into the unforgiving minute as possible.

As I hope is evident, some of the motives instigating our yen for competition and achievement continue to work on us well beyond the point they are useful. Seventy-year-olds getting cosmetic surgery — really? Acceptance of the inevitable is not popular in the West. We listen to our genes and, as a result, buy the jeans 15-year-olds think are hot.

You might argue with the reasons I’ve given. There are certainly others and many of us try to fight our programming. Nonetheless, evolutionary psychology research points in the direction I’ve indicated. We have many motives and are often quite unaware of them. All that said, if you stay on the surface of things in your attempt to understand yourself, you will miss a lot. Most people do.

Inevitably, though not for everyone, competitive activities are scaled down; at least if we are paying a little attention to what the clock, our bodies, and the world are telling us. And yet, as Dylan Thomas declaimed, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Competition is almost inescapable even to the last.

Maureen O’Hara, the late Irish-American actress of the mid-twentieth century, said this about herself:

“There have been crushing disappointments. But when that happens, I say, ‘Find another hill to climb.’”

Good advice, even if the hill is a small one.

maureen-oharaMaureen O’Hara

*I am reminded by my wife that some “Nanas” do not want to be associated with their mother-in-laws. Thus, there will never be more than one “Grandma Stein” in my family, namely my late mother. 😉

The top image is Jose Luis Nunez bouldering in Ton Sai Beach, Krabi, Thailand. The picture was taken by Mr. Nunez. The second photo is of Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. Both images come from Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “Why We Compete and What We Compete For

  1. Dr. Stein, thanks for another one of your enlightening articles.

    “Women are inclined by evolution and instinct to be drawn to those men who can fend for them and future children; not the guy who is passive, weak, deferential, and unaccomplished.”
    ~ This would explain why so many of us go for the “bad guy.” 🙂

    “Overcoming insecurities is a kind of contest between you and your fears.”
    ~ This one hits close to home. My entire life has been one of facing and overcoming my fears. I’ve never considered it a contest, but it makes sense.

    “The Race Against Time: Here is an opponent we cannot beat, yet we make the effort. Most of us do our best to cram as much “life” into the unforgiving minute as possible.”
    ~ Especially love this one; so applicable at my age. Those unforgiving minutes go so fast, it’s scary 🙂

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    • Thanks, Rosaliene. Yes, “strong” men do have an attraction that is instinctive — all the more for those with a history of insecurity or abuse. Then, the one chosen to defend can turn toward the attack, adding to insecurities and abuse. We think we are more rational than we are. Jonathan Swift, in “Gulliver’s Travels,” takes some pains to point out that while we pride ourselves on rationality, we are animals who are only “capable” of rationality. The state of the world begins to make sense, at least to me, only if one looks at the role of instinct and evolutionary disposition in driving our behavior.

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  2. I liked your wife’s comment, and your response 😉 blogging is such a solitary exercise for me it was nice to see that it may be a bit less so for you!
    As usual it was a joy to read 🙂 with some lovely turns of phrase – I am thinking of the jeans I recently bought 🙂
    And I enjoyed the reference to the first poem I ever chose to learn by heart, purse school -Kipling ‘ s ‘If’. Interesting – if I had one unforgiving minute left, far from filling it with sixty seconds worth of distance run, I think I might stand still. Probably due to being paralysed by fear and indecision! But maybe also just to absorb and be still. But that’s the last minute – not all the others in between. Though it is also a reminder of what more of the other minutes should be filled with.
    Your post has made me wonder to what extent evolution cares about minds and emotions, versus our physical bodies and survival? The first thing I thought of in terms of competition was ‘affection ‘ and yet neither friendship nor a mate, is what that is about, at least not in terms of the evolutionary benefits of survival and procreation. Personal growth is about how we feel; to some extent do is trying to overcome age. But what premium does nature put on an emotionally content and fulfilled life? Or is survival always better, no matter how miserable ? It seems to me that only when some of those competitive urges have died down a little, do we start to make decisions more targeted towards our true emotional wellbeing. Maybe that us wisdom coming with age – or maybe the cynic would sat that once we’ve created the next generation, nature doesn’t care about us anymore and leaves us to our own devices!
    I better stop – particularly as I’m typing on my phone at snails speed! Thank you for a really thought provoking post 🙂

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    • “Your post has made me wonder to what extent evolution cares about minds and emotions, versus our physical bodies and survival? The first thing I thought of in terms of competition was ‘affection ‘ and yet neither friendship nor a mate, is what that is about, at least not in terms of the evolutionary benefits of survival and procreation.” Just to remind you of something I think you know, evolution doesn’t “care.” It is not a mindful thing, only a process. To the extent that it operates on us, those affective and behavioral tendencies that increase the likelihood of pushing our genes into the next generation are “selected,” others not. Thus, emotion has a big place: the bonding of people together increases the chances of survival and procreation. Fulfillment per se is irrelevant, unless that sense of fulfillment were to be correlated with the ability to nurture and protect our children, grandchildren, etc. If, for example, a person found he/she felt pride and pleasure in making a living in support of a family, then fulfillment would make an evolutionary difference. Similarly, to the degree that climbing the corporate ladder made one more likely to get a desirable/healthy/helpful mate, such fulfillment would come along for the evolutionary ride. Evolution doesn’t “care” whether we are happy. It only wants to seed the world with our genes. “Nature” would be perfectly indifferent to our emotional state if it didn’t foster the procreation/gene survival project. If, however, it were helpful to such survival to have grandparents around, then their presence would be encouraged by the process of natural selection. Thanks for your kind words and the opportunity to say a few more of my own in explanation of the notion of evolution.

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