The Case Against Competition

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By Mark Lundegren

Having just finished No Contest: The Case Against Competition, by Alfie Kohn, fully twenty years after its first publication, I feel like a person arriving late to a gathering, only to find the event has not yet begun. 

Kohn’s book and urgent theme may not be new, but I would recommend as strongly as I can this provocative, original, and gentle but radical critique of our still increasingly competitive society (that seems increasingly unable to see its alternatives).  Kohn’s many poignant observations, insights, and conclusions are as timely today as when first written and seem perennially compelling.  All have most certainly withstood, and may even have been strengthened, by the proverbial test of time.

However you may feel today about the merits of competition and the alternative of cooperation, you will agree that the implications of your feelings are considerable, for you and, in the aggregate, for us all.  Your feelings about competition are fundamental to the way you will live your life each day, to the world you will wake up to and work to create (and accept), and to how you will think about and treat those of us who are near you, throughout the course of your life.

Across twenty-five online reviews of No Contest I surveyed, spanning a decade, the book garners a solid four out of five star rating, but this average belies a strongly divergent pattern of individual reviews that I think is important and telling.  There are mostly four- and five-star ratings and words of praise and encouragement for what is an excellent and thorough book, but consistently about twenty percent of people who review the work rank it poor and offer comments that are, well, often quite dismissive.  This latter set of reviews seem, in some cases, to lack poignancy and originality, an infraction Kohn cannot be accused of, and some are quite aggressive and even hostile.  I suspect that if No Contest was more widely read in our time, and more frequently reviewed, the percentage of detractors would be far higher.

I bring up this persistent pattern of negative reactions to No Contest, not to belittle its detractors, but because it underscores a central hypothesis of Kohn’s work: that competition, and the competitive structures and mindsets it fosters, works to alter us.  Empirically, they bias us to be reactive and aggressive, closed to new ideas and inimical to alternatives, and resistive to and even obstinate about changes to the rules of the games we play (even to the games we are made to play).  Kohn challenges us to imagine a new game, called cooperation.  Does this game sound strange, uncertain, and threatening to you?  Many people seem to think so and to think, perhaps idealistically themselves, that it is an idealistic proposition.

In his remarkable book, Kohn catalogues extensive research into the ways competition makes us less sensitive, less productive, less creative, and even less intelligent.  He documents findings that suggest competition narrows our personal focus and thereby makes us less able or likely to see our frames of reference for what they are – constructed frames we refer to – frames that are enabling and necessary, but also that are ultimately limiting and expandable, and as such, ultimately indefensible.  Life in competitive structures, life in competitive worldviews, even may make us less engaged in life itself, as it almost certainly and near universally makes us less engaged in others and their lives.

I came to discover No Contest on the recommendation of a friend, after a brief but lasting conversation on the practical virtues of cooperation, and after some months of thinking about competition and its role in and impact on our health and social environment.  As a friend, though we may not have yet met, I will recommend this important and thought-provoking book to you as well, and invite you into my original, still echoing conversation about the alternative of cooperation. 

As I make this recommendation to you, it is with a conviction that Kohn’s No Contest will at least give you an interesting perspective on contemporary life, that it may provoke and irritate you, and that it may, as other reviewers have noted, cause you to wake up and live differently each day.  I certainly feel this third way.  I feel that Kohn has nurtured, expanded, better grounded in science an earlier notion of mine:  cooperation, not competition as has been held for centuries, is the natural and most beneficial state of human beings.

As a book, No Contest is nearly flawless technically, especially given its generally uncharted or at least unassimilated subject, the then young age of its author, and even after twenty years of opportunities for alternatives and even as it is a disagreeable work to many people. I found the book well planned and elegantly written, finely passionate, carefully reasoned, worth having for the bibliography alone, and of course potentially mind-altering in its assembled evidence and conclusions.  The book was not what I expected, and it will likely not be what you expect now, with divergent views and reviews apt to continue for as long as the book is read. 

A divergence of views of this sort seems inevitable and should be perpetually welcomed as an opportunity to illustrate and give force Kohn’s thesis, as I have done.  No Contest counters the vast and driving weight of our modern intuition and sensibility that competition is good, and the now abundant extrinsic benefits of advanced technology and global commerce, attributed to competition but perhaps only superficially true.  And even as Kohn has, firmly on his side, the increasing intrinsic poverty and despair of people across the world, as the lives and traditional communities are globalized.  This last set of facts seems, to me, to be an important and stunningly overlooked piece of evidence, amidst all the familiar pronouncements on virtue of competition. 

Some earlier reviewers have criticized No Contest for not offering enough practical guidance, but I am happy to be left to think about and act on its many ideas and conclusions for myself and with others.  Still, we all live in a practical world and so do need to wonder a bit:  if cooperation is superior to competition in category after category of human affairs, if it consistently produces more creative and satisfied, and healthier and saner people, why is there simply not more of it around us?  Perhaps cooperation is more widespread than we realize, undergirding but frequently overshadowed by more obvious acts of competition that attract more attention.

As I said, I am willing to consider this question and the many others Kohn’s book engenders, and I hope you are too.  Computer modeling and game theory of the last two decades may offer new insights into the apparent patterns of competition and cooperation around us today, but as yet not a path to the new and more beneficial states of ubiquitous cooperation posed as possible, more sustainable, and more desirable by Kohn. (I would welcome being updated on advances in game theory and systems modeling).

The organizational psychologists Chris Argyris and Donald Schon wrote, beginning in the 1970s and well before Kohn’s book, about typical “Model I” and, far more effective, “Model II” group dynamics.  I always was comfortable with these tidy non-labels.  Having read No Contest, though, I am now inclined to think they could have named, and that we should rightly now name, these interactive styles for what they really may be: competitive and cooperative group dynamics.  I’ll leave you to consider this idea too, one of many that spill out, into heads and rooms, during a reading or discussion of No Contest.

To end somewhat near where I began, No Contest is an awakening for many people and an irritant and even an outrage for probably many more of us today, no doubt to all who are disciples and ideologues of economic liberalism and committed to the game and ethic of competition.  In me, No Contest stirred both a child and an old man, each wiser in the way children and elders can be wiser than us in mid-life, in their propensity for innocence to new ideas and in their indifference to so many external, accepted, and seemingly emphatic things in our lives.

I hope No Contest will be this for you, and still more. 

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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