How Competition Affects Your Brain
We all might have at different stages in our lives encountered people who can be described as ‘born competitors’.
It could be that colleague hell-bent on beating everyone else on the quarterly sales targets, that classmate who will stop at nothing to top the class in a favorite subject, or even a sibling that wants to outdo the rest in all sorts of family engagements.
While this might give the impression that there are some people who are naturally competitive and others who are not, this is not the case.
As research by Texas-based clinical psychologist Craig Dike reveals, competition has been at the core of the survival of the human species, driving both our biological and psychological evolution.
In fact, an examination of hominid skulls from the past two million years by researchers at the University of Missouri concluded that social competition was the biggest cause of increased cranial capacity of humans, partly explaining why the size of the human brain has tripled over that period as compared to other mammals.
While climate change and ecological demands also contributed to the increasing brain capacity in humans, the research findings suggest that areas with higher population density were associated with bigger skulls (hence greater brain capacity).
A possible explanation offered for this positive association was that higher population density resulted in greater intensity of social competition for necessities and status, and having a bigger brain helped early humans survive in such situations.
This shows that competition has a physical impact on the brain.
Now, an even more relatable incidence of human competition is in sporting activities of all levels.
There is the thrill of the sport itself and the glory of winning that spurs participants into a struggle to outdo each other.
Think of a time you participated in any competition, whether that was a game of chess with your sibling or game of tennis at a high school competition – what went through your mind as you took on your opponent?
What were you feeling during the competition and following the outcome of the competition? Do you think you would have felt the same thing if the outcome was different? Did the competition have any impact on your outside the event you were competing in?
When you engage in a competition, a number of things happen in your brain. These include:
YOUR BRAIN’S REWARD SYSTEM IS ACTIVATED
In one part of our brain’s is something known as a the reward center, which is basically a group of structures and neural pathways in the brain that get activated by reward-related or reinforcing stimuli, making them responsible for reward-related cognition.
When exposed to the rewarding stimuli, the reward system responds by triggering the release of dopamine into the brain.
Commonly known as the ‘feel-good hormone’, dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals released by neurons that control numerable body functions and convey signals from the brain to the body.
When dopamine is released into the brain, the person experiences feelings bordering euphoria, bliss and a surge of energy.
This feeling of bliss and euphoria motivates the person to want to experience the rewarding stimuli again.
It has been suggested that dopamine is instrumental in encoding memories about rewards, such as how and where to obtain them, as well as assigning importance to the stimuli associated with the specific reward.
The rewards I am talking about in this case are not necessarily tangible ones as would be winning a prize after a chess tournament, but are rather gratifying in their capacity to produce associative learning (acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behavior etc.), affect decision-making, encourage approach behavior (motivation or propulsion towards a certain activity, event or outcome) and causing pleasurable emotions.
When you engage in a competition, and especially when you win, your brain’s reward system releases a rush of dopamine into your brain, resulting in a feeling of pleasure.
This is why winning even something as simple as a video game or a game of cards leads to feelings of joy, even though there is no material gain from winning.
Like I mentioned earlier, the release of dopamine and the resultant pleasurable feeling are meant to encourage the person to seek the same stimuli that caused this feeling.
This was an evolutionary trait meant to ensure survival. When our primitive ancestors were roaming the plains, winning meant the difference between life and death.
When two Neanderthal males fought, the loser would be left greatly injured, or probably dead, while the winner survived.
When two starving hunter gatherers came across an edible fruit, the one who beat the other to it would have something to eat, while the other was left starving.
Since winning meant survival, the brain reinforced the need for winning by releasing a rush of dopamine whenever our primitive ancestors won a competition.
This created a craving for winning whenever early humans found themselves in a competition.
Today, while many of the competitions we engage in are not a matter of life and death, this evolutionary trait is still active in our brains, always pushing us to try and win in every competition we engage in.
The craving for a rush of dopamine is why some people will go to any length to win even something trivial, such as that friend who will go cheat to win a simple game of cards.
ENHANCES PERFORMANCE BY MOTIVATING US TO PUSH OUR LIMITS
Competition has been demonstrated to have a performance-enhancing effect on participants over time. Think of the many records that have been set and broken in the world of sports.
Why do you think a record takes some time to break, but once it is broken and a new one set, several other athletes are also able to exceed the previous record?
Competition undoubtedly improves your performance because it creates a frame of reference.
We are social beings and all through our life we can’t help but compare ourselves with others in our immediate environment.
We regularly ask ourselves, ‘how am I fairing compared to my brother, friend, colleague or that industry leader?’
If we feel that others are doing better than us, this motivates us to push our limits and achieve better results than we may have achieved previously.
While being involved in a competition is seen to increase productivity and motivation, it is not as simple as just turning up for a bout.
Rather, the increased productivity and motivation is based on the quality of your competitor.
In other words, in order to enhance your performance, you need a rival – one that you think matches your skills and achievements or supersedes them.
You get that dopamine rush at the prospect of outsmarting them and cementing your reputation.
For instance, if you asked to compete against in a game of chess against an 8 year old, you wouldn’t really put so much into the match, because you know you can easily beat them.
If however, you were asked to face someone who has worn a national chess championship, you would have greater motivation to win the game, which might result in you coming up with some traps and strategies you have never thought of before.
How important is it to have a rival in a competition? In 2016, a Bellevue College professor, Dr Jillene Grover Seiver studied professional archers to investigate the benefits of the presence of a rival in competitive sport.
The results were stunning – when an archer’s main rival was at the event, the archer scored significantly higher than when this main competitor was absent.
Seiver concludes that the fact that they were involved in a competitive sport was not the main reason that made them better but rather more of the fact that they were in competition with someone they deemed to be similar in skill as they.
A classic example of the importance of rivalry is the friendly rivalry between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. When Phelps announced his retirement, Lochte is reported to have said that Phelps helped make him (Lochte) a better swimmer.
During Phelps’ brief retirement period, Lochte says he contemplated retiring too, but on the announcement of Phelp’s return, Lotche was quoted to have said that had reignited a spark for the game.
Lochte felt that being in competition with Phelps helped make both of them better swimmers.
At the workplace, placing employees with nearly similar skills, talents and competencies against each other in a competition could have a similar motivational or performance boost.
The natural response to an equal being able to complete a certain task and gain the respect that we also seek is to up our game and earn the same recognition for ourselves.
While encouraging competition at the workplace can help enhance performance, sometimes, it can have a negative effect, leading to disagreements and sabotaging the efforts of colleagues.
According to Ashley Merryman’s best-selling book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning And Losing, purpose, structure and mission have to be integrated into the competition to create a singular vision if the sought after results are to be achieved.
The aim of creating a singular vision is to make it clear that the potential rewards from the communal effort will be much higher than what one could have ever achieved on their own.
ENHANCES OUR LEARNING CAPABILITIES
What happens when you are readying up for a competition?
You probably start sharpening the relevant skills needed to take the spoils home – whether this means getting to your peak levels of physical fitness, learning a new technique or brushing up your presentation skills.
In a study by Rutgers University’s Brynne DiMenichi and Elizabeth Tricomi published on the journal Frontiers in Psychology, two experiments were set up to examine the implication of competition on effort and memory.
In the first experiment, participants were required to complete a physical effort task and got rewarded for either winning an overall percentage or winning over ‘another player’.
In the second experiment, a memory task was given and participants rewarded for remembering a percentage of the shapes or for remembering more shapes than a ‘competitor’.
The study found participants demonstrated faster reaction times (an indicator of attention) in the physical effort task when they believed that they were competing against another person.
However, participants who believed that they were competing against another person remembered less shapes during the study period and even less during a post-test later on.
The findings support the idea that competition is more beneficial (by improving attention and thus motivation) in a physical effort task but is less effective in memory-based tasks.
If competition increases attention, then a suggested application in learning environments and the workplace is the encouragement of internal competition.
Good competition comes with a realization that there will be a learning process involved and that it might take a considerable amount of time to get really good at something.
IT IS NOT JUST ABOUT WINNING
An everyday understanding of competition is that two or more parties are striving for a singular goal that cannot be shared amongst them.
This can be simply put as ‘winner takes it all’ or a zero-sum game – where the winner’s gain is exactly balanced with the loss of the other participants.
War would be the near-perfect example of this perspective to competition where the loser is completely annihilated.
Under this view, competition is often contrasted with cooperation – which is working together towards a common, mutually-benefitting goal rather than competing for selfish, individual benefit.
In every day life, however, competition is largely non-zero-sum, a mixture of competition and cooperation is the norm where one participant’s loss (or gain) does not necessarily lead to the other participant’s gain (or loss) – everyone can gain.
It does not always adhere to the social construct of competition as striving against or working against another group.
Going back to the idea of structure and a common goal, competition within an organization can actually lead to cooperation.
After agreeing on the ground rules and what the overarching vision within, for example, of the sales unit is, employee competition to hit the highest numbers is advancing the organizational goal.
It is fallacious to think of every competitive environment as a man-eat-man situation.
As Merryman observes in Top Dog, the real value of competition is not the win but rather a near-assurance of improvement.
The science on neurogenesis – the creation of new brain neurons – has demonstrated that brain power can be improved via the performance of competitive tasks.
The improvement comes as you practice and start realizing both at the moment of competing and over time the clues to an even greater performance or achievement.
Once you reach a new milestone, your expectation of what is possible changes and the drive to reach the next level kicks in.
Competing can therefore be thought of as a kind of mental fitness exercise where incremental improvements over past achievements and milestones set you on the route to steady brain power improvement.
Brain scientists have discovered that acting to improve via competing or mastering a new skills alters brainwaves that bolster our performance and our intellectual capabilities.
Even the simplest of competitions can improve brain power.
A meta-analysis of 116 studies investigating the neural basis of video gaming published on the journal Frontiers in 2017, shows that present research supports the link between playing competitive video games and changes in brain regions responsible for attention, cognitive control, visual-spatial skills and cognitive workload
It is the ‘risk-takers’, however, who will get the most benefit of this brain power-boosting possibility from competitive engagements since they are the group that engages less cautiously in mental fitness efforts led by their belief in new possibilities.
People who push themselves to the next level, run further than they did before, lift heavier weights than last time, write a greater essay than before or take on a technological innovation that has not been fully tested are reshaping their brains chemically and electrically and stand to achieve a higher intelligence level.
Do you lose sight of the goal if the number of competitors is too many that the chances of winning are harder to estimate?
A 2009 study by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom Tor suggests that the optimal benefit of competition is best achieved from small teams.
In the study, students were asked to complete a brief quiz and informed that the top 20% to complete first and most accurately would be rewarded with $5.
They were divided into two groups where one was told they were competing against 10 students and the other group told the competitors were 100.
Students from the smaller group finished the same quiz faster than those in the bigger group.
The researchers concluded that an increase in the number of competitors (N) can potentially reduce competitive motivation.
A plausible explanation is that the fewer the number of competitors the higher our perceived chances of success and as such the greater the motivation to put more effort in the competition.
It would be difficult to pinpoint the ideal competitive mindset majorly because of an array of character distinctions and motivations that cannot be imposed as a sure prescription.
Some people do best when they play not to lose, some when angry, some nervous, others it’s about being patriotic and others being happy does it for them.
But there are those who do not do well in a competitive environment especially if they have lost in previous competitions and have been unable to motivate themselves to take part in a new ones.
It can be quite demotivating for this kind of a person when deliberate competition is introduced in the workplace since it can be stress-inducing and potentially work against the synergy it was seeking to achieve.
Top Dog presents statistics from scientific research that indicates a significant 25 percent of people crumble under competition and disengage.
Another 25 percent will not be impacted by it and is about half of people who benefit from it.
Craig Dike offers a familiar way of boosting productivity and team motivation, typically employed in team-building events that have a low chance of undermining cohesiveness and creating negative feelings towards ‘winning’ colleagues.
He suggests introducing non-work related competitions that offer the same benefits of competition such as the activation of the brain reward centers but devoid of the sometimes negative and potentially destabilizing consequences of outright in-work competition.
Potluck – where employees bring in different, often homemade food to the office – is one interesting example of a safe competition where employees anonymously vote on the best dish.
Outdoor quarterly gaming competitions is another lighthearted competition that can inject competition into the workplace without creating resentment among colleagues.
Gal Rimon, the founder and CEO of workforce gamification company GamEffective provides a useful insight into the ideal competition model for the workplace.
He argues that people can be driven to compete intrinsically – that they can compete with themselves rather than against colleagues.
Rimon says goals can be set with the employee or their performance evaluated in relation to a ‘benchmarked’ performance by a colleague at their level.
It is true that some people would describe themselves as ‘non-competitive’ based on previous interactions with ‘born competitive’ siblings, workmates or schoolmates or even past performances.
However, as research quoted above shows, competitiveness is literally intrinsic to the human existence and it doesn’t have to be a win-lose situation – the most valuable benefit is not to ‘feel good’ after winning but the mental building blocks acquired for the next challenge.
Merryman says the self-assignment of a ‘non-competitive’ identity actually stems from the worry that they have to ascribe to the connotative meaning of competition – cutthroat, aggressive, mean and cheat.
This as we have discussed above is far from the actual meaning of competition which can be more of respectful and cooperative than combative and selfish.
Given the benefits of competition to your brain’s development, its implication on your decision-making and effectiveness you stand to lose a lot if you are not ready to take the risk of a new competitive challenge.