COMPETITION IS A LOSER
Competition dominates our lives more than it should. Your reaction to the word
"loser" in the title to this paper demonstrates the attitude that has developed in your mind
about the pervasive importance of winning, regardless of what a competition is
Manly W. Mumford
Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
October 21, 2002
Not that I oppose competition in all its forms, nor do I question the need for it in
developing a society in which life is well worth living. But I consider that, as individuals use
fire and money to achieve desired results, society should use competition as a tool, not
revere it as a value.
In 1660 Thomas Hobbes, in writing The Leviathian, expressed his notion of
unrestrained competition among people. He imagined "that the natural condition of humans is
a state of perpetual war of all against all, where no morality exists, and everyone lives in
In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is
uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of
the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no
instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no
knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no
society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death;
and the life of people, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. "
In 1776, when he published The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith expressed a
different view of how people behave toward each other. He assumed three classes:
manufacturers, landlords, and laborers. In his view, competition among the members of those
classes keeps prices, rents, and wages within those limits that best enable society to grow and
prosper. As a result, all three should be allowed to proceed with little restraint. The phrase
"Laissez-faire" is generally applied to this notion.
Then, in 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle
of Population. He was less optimistic.
I think I may fairly make two postulata.
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will
remain nearly in its present state.
These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind,
appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen
any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease
to be what they now are.
In his 1876 autobiography, Charles Darwin wrote:
* * *
...towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever
has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did
two thousand or four thousand years ago.
* * *
Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of
population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce
subsistence for man.
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.
Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with
numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the
By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of
man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.
This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from
the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must
necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.
* * *
All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in
comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of
this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian
regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic
inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and
being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere
goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it
at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would
tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this
would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory
by which to work.
Darwin's resulting idea is expressed thus in the introduction to The Origin of
As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly
survive, and as consequently there is a frequently recurring struggle for
existence, it follows that any being, if it vary in any manner profitable to itself,
under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better
chance of survival and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of
inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified
A different version of the way that various species came about is expressed in the
Book of Genesis. Detailed analysis of the differences is not within the purpose of this paper
except in one respect. In the Bible, God brought forth the plants and saw that it was good.
God brought forth the whales and fish and birds, and saw that it was good. God made the
beast of the earth, and cattle, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth and God saw that it
was good. God created man and God saw everything that He had made, and it was very
Whether Darwin concluded that the evolution of the various species was good is
irrelevant. He dealt with theory based on evidence, not with value based on faith.
Yet I wonder if people, on accepting the evolutionary view, have nevertheless retained
the notion that creation was good. I must admit that I am, on the whole, pleased with the
world and find it good. That it got this way by a Malthusian / Darwinian competition does
not turn me against it. Nevertheless, I believe that competition is independent of good and
evil. Yet one important exception to this independence comes to mind: characteristics that we
consider good provide a competitive advantage to the societies in which those characteristics
predominate. I have speculated from time to time whether the Christian teachings of humility
and tolerance on the part of individuals have so reduced internecine fighting that a nation of
such people can field a larger and more effective army than a nation of fighters.
When I was in law school, I began to wonder why it was necessary to pass the anti-
trust laws to protect so natural and inevitable a phenomenon as competition. Then a flash of
understanding struck me: co-operation is inherently more profitable for the participants than is
competition. You and I as, say, makers of steel, don't have to compete, each trying to sell
better steel at a lower price than the other. We can cooperate, and make whatever grade of
steel we choose and sell it at whatever price we choose. Our competition would be much
better for our customers, who are outside the arena, but not for us who are in it. The anti-
trust laws are a prime example of society using competition as a tool to achieve the result of
better steel cheaper for society as a whole.
As a social tool, competition should be used with restraint and wisdom, appropriately
in time and manner. No matter how good a saw you have, you should not try to hammer a
nail with it.
One of the areas where competition is widely and necessarily used is in deciding
among candidates for a higher education. Where the supply of candidates far exceeds the
demand, the competition is severe.
"Juken jigoku" is a Japanese phrase meaning "examination hell." It refers to the
intense competition to do well in examinations for entrance into certain universities and high
schools in Japan. A document titled "Issues in Japanese Education" was prepared for the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Kodansha International Ltd. in March, 2001 and is based on
material from the "Japan Access" website. It reads, in part:
The competition itself is primarily the result of the employment practices of
Japan's major corporations and the government bureaucracy, both of which tend
to recruit almost exclusively from a relatively small group of top universities
for new managerial career-track employees. This has led to the widespread
view that admission to one of these universities is for practical purposes a
requirement for success in life. The problem is compounded by the admission
policies of the schools themselves. Although some universities include essay or
performance tests, in the majority of cases admission is based primarily on the
results of multiple-choice-type tests.
In order to improve admission chances for a desired school or university, many
elementary school students and the majority of junior high and high school
students attend juku (private tutoring schools) or yobiko (cram
schools) in the evening. This heavy schedule clearly leaves little time for play
and developing personal interests, and it is thought by many to have an adverse
effect on personality development and creativity. The stress of competition is
often cited as a causal factor in the problems of bullying, violence, and "school
allergy" that are found in junior high and high schools.
In modern China, a similar anxiety prevails. The June 8, 2002, issue of The New
York Times carried a story titled, "A Chinese Dad in Defense of the Average Child." The
dad, editor of a literary magazine, wrote a book in protest bearing the title, I'm Mediocre,
I'm Happy. It sold about 20,000 copies. The best selling book in China in 2001 was
Harvard Girl in which a girl's parents describe preparing their daughter from birth to
enter Harvard. It sold over a million copies.
* * *
The number of children refusing to attend elementary and junior high schools
for emotional reasons has been increasing every year. A total of 62,228 such
cases was reported for junior high schools in 1996. This problem is in many
instances seen as related to school bullying and entrance examination pressure.
In the United States competition among young students has not reached Japan's level,
but there is still plenty of pressure on some to get into the right school so as to get into the
right university so as to get the right job. Fortunately our universities and our corporations
do their selecting in ways less harmful to the candidates. Consider the following expression
of criteria for admission to Harvard College that appears on the University's website:
Generally, successful applicants are at the top of their class - but we do
not have rigid requirements and high marks do not guarantee admission. In
deciding whom to admit from among the large group of academically-talented
applicants, we look at more than just grades: energy, initiative, the support of
teachers and counselors, and evidence that a student will take advantage of
what Harvard offers. [http://www.harvard.edu/help/faq_index.html/faq23.html]
This approach reduces the likelihood that any one formula for gaining admission will work,
regardless of how rigidly followed. It also observes a more Darwinian practice: you learn
what characteristics promote winning a competition only afterwards, when the winners have
The notion that a child's life must be made wretched at a time when he should be
playing and having fun is dismal. One article that I read (Alfie Kohn, "The Case Against
Competition" in Working Mother, September, 1987) suggests that "the best amount of
competition for our children is none at all, and the very phrase, healthy competition' is
actually a contradiction in terms." It goes on to say,
Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth. Most people lose in most
competitive encounters and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even
winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies
have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources
of evaluation as a result of competition. Your value is defined by what you
have done. Worse -- you're a good person in proportion to the number of
people you've beaten.
That bit about dismissing losers attracted my attention. When preparing this paper I
looked for articles about the psychological implications and effects of competitive sports and
found the field awash with material about the psychology of winning, and nothing about the
psychological effects of losing. I guess the writers considered that losers aren't worth writing
about. In another bit of speculation, I wonder if the effects of losing too often damage some
people's sense of self-worth so much that they find life tolerable only with the help of alcohol
* * *
One after another, researchers across the country have concluded that
children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive
struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes
with concentration. Second, competition doesn't permit them to share their
talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can't learn from one another.
Finally, trying to be Number One distracts them from what they're supposed to
be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the
reward (an A or a gold star or a trophy), she becomes less interested in what
she's doing. The result: Performance declines.
* * *
Competition leads children to envy winners, to dismiss losers (there's no
nastier epithet in our language that "Loser!") and to be suspicious of just about
everyone. Competition makes it difficult to regard others as potential friends
or collaborators; even if you're not my rival today, you could be tomorrow.
In the United States the formation of little leagues, run by adults, to teach children to
play baseball well seems to have largely replaced the practice of my childhood. When three
or more boys wanted to play baseball, they found others who might join them, picked sides,
and played. I suppose we kept score but, as the teams were never the same from game to
game, who cared? If there weren't enough boys to form teams, a game called "Peggy-
Bounce-Out" was played the players took turns at various positions and at bat, and no one
kept score. This was not particularly competitive, but it was fun, and was a much better
exercise of the boys' initiative than play structured for them by grown-ups. Whether boys
became better baseball players through one practice or the other is not important. There is
plenty of time, in high school, college, or other occasions for those who want to compete in
an organized fashion to do so. And I do wonder which is the better preparation for
adulthood: playing in an environment structured by people in authority, or making up
whatever structure you think you need on the spot.
Another area in which I find competition to be overused is in the judging of wine.
Some experts use a scale of 100 to rate wines, as if a consumer could tell or care about a
difference so slight as one percent. This absurdity is aggravated by the artificial conditions
under which wines are judged: tasting them under conditions that pertain only at wine
tastings. Each taster is provided with a small quantity of each of the various competing
wines and is not to swallow any of them, for to do so would soon dull the senses. Then he
makes notes of the various characteristics of the wine. Some of these are objective, like
color, sweetness, and body. Others, like the strength of the aroma, aftertaste, and tannin
content, are objective enough so that most tasters are likely to agree. But many
characteristics described in the tasting business are so vague that they provide no useful
information to others and that tasters themselves are likely to disagree. These include flavors
or aromas variously called "almond," "apple," "apple skin," "apricot," "barnyard,," "berry,"
"black pepper," "brown sugar," "burnt match," "buttery," "candy," "cherry," "cloves," "curing
concrete," "hazelnut," "herbaceous," "licorice," "nuttiness," "old leather," "peaches," "plum,"
and "watermelon." Yet they fail to include the sort of objective information that I used when
making my own wine, such as acidity that I tested with litmus paper, alcohol content that I
tested with a hydrometer, and residual sugar that I tested with a kit sold for testing the urine
of diabetics. Winemakers pay a great deal of attention to this sort of information.
A useful way of rating wines should help a person avoid buying bad wine and be
more likely to buy good wine suited to the food with which he will drink it. Critics do this
sort of thing with paintings, novels, plays, symphonies, movies, and ballets. Some wine critics
do so with four or five grades of wines, such as excellent, good, fair, and poor, and a
recommendation of the sort of food to eat it with. I hold their views in more respect.
Yet the worst part of wine tasting is in the mind of the taster: he must record
distinctions among sensations rather than enjoy the relaxation and pleasure that wine exists to
provide. Thus the competition among wines and their makers afflicts the judges of that
competition by denying them the pleasure for which wine is made.
I don't object to competition in athletics. Some of my fondest memories are of the
time that I competed to get on a crew, and cooperated very closely with others in the boat to
row as well as we could in competition with crews from other colleges. Like many aspects
of life a team sport comprises a fabric of interwoven threads of competition and cooperation.
I have no doubt that competition among candidates is a good way to select a few, assuming
that the competition is properly framed. When the winners achieve positions that require
intense cooperation with some of those against whom they were recently competing, are the
winners those who compete best at cooperating?
The notion that competition produces better competitors reminds me of the reason
given for exempting horse racing from the laws against gambling enacted by most Stares: that
it improves the breed of horses. Of course if you ask what improvement of the breed means,
it turns out that the most improved horses are those that run the fastest, regardless of other
characteristics that horses have. Although man's use of selective breeding of animals and
plants has been a practice for thousands of years, it is done for the benefit of man, not of the
subjects. I wonder what characteristics promote the survival of those wild horses that
populate several of our western States. Speed is probably one of them, but I doubt that a
racing thoroughbred would survive and procreate well among the mustangs that have survived
since the days of the Conquistadores.
Once in the 1950's I attended a lecture by Carl Sandburg. His message stuck with me.
It was that in trying to decide whether to be suspicious or naive in a given situation it is
better to be naive. If you are too naive, people may take advantage of you, and sometimes
they will, but mostly they won't. But if you are too suspicious, your own attitudes will
prevent you from trusting others enough to cooperate with them, and in most cases, whatever
of importance gets done is done in cooperation with others. So the suspicious person ends up
without accomplishing anything. I interpret this view to associate competition with suspicion
and naivete with cooperation.
Many people have remarked on the reduction in collegiality that used to permeate the
practice of law. This might be attributed to the competition among lawyers for clients,
although it might also be attributed to the way that large law firms select young lawyers. By
the time he or she is hired, a candidate has competed successfully in high school to get into a
good college, in college to get grades adequate to enter law school, and in law school to rank
among those with the highest grades. Such people have been well trained to compete. I am
not aware that much attention is paid, in hiring young lawyers, to what experience they have
had in cooperating, such as in team sports or serving in the military.
Another area where competition seems to be out of control is in the rating of colleges
and universities. Various publications seem to enjoy decreeing which of them is best, or
rating them in 1-2-3 order. What constitutes being best appears a distant second in
importance to the rating itself. Consider the following possibilities:
1. The institution that is hardest to get into.
In 1944 I was assigned to Northwestern Midshipmen's school. The commandant was
Captain Wygant, a highly respected retired regular Navy officer. Addressing our class when
we entered, he said that of the three major schools for us 90-day wonders (Columbia,
Annapolis, and Northwestern) the other two had higher failure rates. He considered
Northwestern the most successful because his job was to make officers out of as many of us
candidates as possible, not to keep us from becoming officers.
2. The institution that is hardest to graduate from.
3. The one that has the most distinguished professors:
A. Those who have published the most.
4. The institution whose graduates get the highest paying jobs
B. Those who have won the most awards.
C. Those who are the most widely respected among their
* * *
Z. Those from whom the students learn the most.
5. The one whose graduates comprise the largest number of
6. The one whose football team is most successful.
7. The one that would best satisfy the individual student's
reasons for going to college.
Earlier I referred to the Darwinian concept that you find out which characteristics
promote survival only after the fact. As we learn more and more about various genetically
programmed behavior patterns, we can get into some captivating philosophical and scientific
entanglements. This past summer The New York Times carried an article ["Why
We're So Nice: We're Wired to Cooperate" by Natalie Angier, July 23, 2002] about some
research done at Emory University in Atlanta using magnetic resonance imaging to measure
neural activity and blood flow in the brains of women playing a game called "Prisoners'
Dilemma." Pairs of women interacted by computer, playing about 20 rounds. In each round
each player pressed a button to show whether she would cooperate or defect. If one chose to
defect and the other to cooperate, the defector received three dollars and the cooperator
nothing. If both cooperated, each got two dollars. If both defected, each got one dollar.
Sometimes one of the women followed a pattern selected by the researchers to see how the
other woman would react. When both pursued whatever strategy they chose, they usually
chose to cooperate most of the time, although a few mostly chose to defect. "The researchers
found that, in rounds of cooperation, two broad areas of the brain were activated, both rich in
neurons able to respond to dopamine, the brain chemical famed for its role in addictive
behaviors." Both of those areas involved the sensation of pleasure, and one involved impulse
control. When the women played against a computer (and knew it) the reward circuitry in
their brains was less responsive. "In concert with the imaging results, the women, when
asked afterward for summaries of how they felt during the games, often described feeling
good when they cooperated and expressed positive feelings of camaraderie toward their
playing partners." The conclusion seemed to be that among most of the people tested, acts of
cooperation, even at the cost of some loss of possible reward, made them feel better. "From
past results, the researchers said, one can assume that neuro-imaging studies of men playing
the game would be similar to their new findings with women."
This leads a person to consider whether human beings have evolved into creatures
who naturally cooperate, like ants, honey-bees, beavers, and wolves. One prominent professor
and theorist in the field of cultural evolution was quoted as saying, "I've pointed out to my
students how impressive it is that you can take a group of young men and women of prime
reproductive age, have them come into a classroom, sit down and be perfectly comfortable
and civil to each other. If you put 50 male and 50 female chimpanzees that don't know each
other into a lecture hall, it would be a social explosion."
I find it comforting to consider that human beings have so successfully evolved
cooperative behavior that we now dominate all species that might compete against us.
Yet I wonder whether that comfort is merely a bit of dopamine engaging a suitable receptor
somewhere in my brain as a result of genetically determined behavior tendencies that
developed over thousands of generations of competitive evolution.