Competition and Equality



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    2-14

 ABSTRACT:  The role and function of competition in human beings, its source in basic aggression, its harmful effects, ways to cope with those through seeing all people as having basic worth and equality, and some implications for the future of humanity are discussed.

KEY WORDS:  competition, aggression, war, violence, superiority, status, equality

Competition among human beings is a fundamental function of the species, at least given our current existential situation of limited resources.  Siblings compete for parental attention and gifts.  Villages and tribes compete for hunting or farming space.  Countries compete for land and access to resources.  Businesses compete to sell the most and to “capture” market share.  Sports teams compete to win and have “bragging rights.”  Persons compete to be the best or most—the best skier, the prettiest, the hot-dog eating champion, to have the best-looking partner, to get the best grades, to sell the most cars, to be President, etc., etc.  The concern that people have about comparing and competing and the efforts that they make to compete (such as years of intensive training to be an Olympic athlete or a lifetime of presenting a false self to the world in order to rise politically) are sometimes quite amazing (and perhaps limiting and wasteful).

Human beings are “naturally” aggressive in the sense that they are driven by needs, wants, and feelings to “aggress” against the environment in order to gratify those needs and wants, to quell unpleasant feelings, and to induce pleasant feelings.  We act on the environment in various ways to get what we want, and in so doing, we change the environment (by picking an orange, cutting down a tree, building a house, building a dam to get electricity, changing our place and the place of others in the status hierarchy, etc.).  We seem to have developed through evolution no natural limits on aggression against the environment (except for the sentimentality created by anthropomorphizing the natural world, as in “mother earth”), probably since there have not until now been enough human beings to affect or change the environment very much.  We have developed through evolution some inherent limits on aggression against other human beings (e.g., our revulsion against mayhem or blood, our empathy placing limits on how we harm others, our rules about violence toward kin), although for some purposes we legitimize aggression so that we can compete through wars and through “games” of limited violence (football, cage fighting, boxing).

In looking to the long-term results of our instinct to compete, we can see that evolution (or creation) seems to have set human beings on a course of constant conflict by endowing us with such a strong competitive instinct, though from a survival point of view we can see how important this instinct is.  Infants of all species fight for food, and while they are not consciously competing with others in the brood, their efforts, in an environment with limited food, serve to deprive others of an equal share (others who become the “runts of the litter” or simply die).  After human infants gain some sense of what is going on around them, their competition with siblings becomes conscious and purposeful, as they (we) seek to fulfill desires (get more love, gain status, get more ice cream, etc.) as best we can.  Children maintain this sense of necessary competition (and parents encourage them in it), as they seek approval, honor, social status, and job opportunities, and almost all adults continue to compete as well for these same things (and view that as natural and good).

It is important to note that in our infancy, competition is not about “winning” or besting others; it is about getting enough of what we want and need.  Later, when we see others getting what we want and need and don’t have enough of, we see that resources are limited, and we begin to try to divert some of what they are getting to ourselves, by competing (pleasing parents, pushing siblings out of the way, “telling on” them, etc.).

The status hierarchy has become evolutionarily innate to us, and it serves usefully to limit violence in the disposition of available goods and resources.  We all “naturally” agree that those of higher status get more.  Those of lower status generally accept that they will get less.  (Capitalism assumes that exchanges are mutually determined—that both parties bargain until a mutually agreeable price is reached, but in fact those of lower status are genetically inclined to agree to a lower return than those of higher status insist on for themselves.  (This is one reason why it is so difficult to change wages after they have become fixed or “stable.”)

Unfortunately, our innate competition leads to a certain amount of conflict and violence, if those of equal status and desire will not give way to each other, or if those of lower status decide to seek a better situation for themselves by fighting back.  People seem to be built to respond readily with violence (males more than females) or aggression whenever they feel threatened.  We include in socialization some training toward inhibiting violence, so violence is not the everyday rule, but there is still a considerable amount of it, as we see in the TV news and in our movies.  Humans are also very aware of their place in the group’s hierarchy, and their inclination to respond to competition as appropriate to their station, by allowing those of higher status to get more or have their way, puts some limits on the violence.

The readiness of people to join a war effort against another group both illustrates our penchant for competition and should give us concern regarding the future of the species, since we continue to race to have greater ability to kill those of other groups than they have to kill us, by whatever means, and we continue not to trust other groups to respect our boundaries and to not threaten our resource supplies.  Given our history, it does not seem reasonable to believe that treaties and negotiations will ever stop this power race, since no group will ever trust the other groups sufficiently (e.g., note how the “peaceful” U. S. has not given up its nuclear weapons).  (Globalization may help, but this certainly will take a long time.)  Even if Iran does not build a nuclear bomb in the next ten years, sooner or later even more countries will get the bomb, and some leader, for the sake of misplaced honor or simply out of this competitive instinct, will use the bomb.  Even if this does not destroy the world, it will harm all human beings in various ways to some extent (radiation sickness, genetic changes due to radiation, cloud cover obscuring the sun, poisoning of plants, etc.).

Since we are now so capable of inflicting great harm easily on a great number of other human beings, we should be thinking about how to better moderate our competitive instinct.  The roots of our willingness to kill others and fight wars lie in our individual instincts to compete and our automatic responses to threat.  To be motivated to go to war, we must view another group as a threat or as having something that we want.  We react in both these instances with competition.  Since we do not give people who are outside of our own group any moral or ethical protection from ourselves, we are completely willing to kill them.  This instinct to compete may be genetically wired into our motivations now, but if we do not act to reduce the power of this instinct, it will lead to great misery in the future.

It is important to distinguish our instinct to defend ourselves from our inclination to get more for ourselves.  Aggressive responses to threat are basically defensive, while trying to get more for ourselves is acquisitive.  In both cases we can train ourselves to respond with only truly necessary violence if we wish to.  Our efforts to survive are essential to our nature, but our efforts to take from others or get more than others, if not necessary for actual survival, are a matter of preference, and we can decide not to engage in them or to limit them as appropriate for our own ultimate survival or as a matter of ethics.

It is difficult to think about our individual desires to compete as a problem, since they seem so much a natural part of ourselves, and we quite often enjoy competition, at least at low levels (games, backyard sports, school sports, prizes for the best this or that).  In addition, it seems almost foreign to us in our capitalistic society to think of voluntarily limiting what we have or get in the world, since acquiring and having more are basic motivators for us, but there are other ways to view life, including putting higher priorities on peace than on acquisition and higher priorities on harmony and compassion than on competition.

Competition can also be a venue for striving to do well or to improve, and when we are competing with ourselves to improve or “competing” with the environment (to see if we will get back safely from the top of a mountain or whether we can build a dam), the goal is presumably prosocial.  However, when competition is for the purpose of achieving superiority, it is socially harmful.  Despite the value to the species of having a social hierarchy (to minimize violence in competition for resources and to promote cooperation with authority), it is vital for the psychological health (and therefore, for the effective functioning) of each of us that we have basic respect from others and are able to respect ourselves.  Many persons who are not respected or who are treated as inferior wither and die.  When attempts to establish superiority aim to make one person or group great by putting others down (by implication or overtly by putting others in disrespected positions), then we create long-lasting enmity, and those who are pushed downward or disrespected and do not wither and die will strive to re-establish respect, no matter how long it takes.

Because competition seems so natural to us, it is easy for us to ignore its probable cataclysmic consequences.  If we do nothing to curb our “natural” competitive instincts, our world will eventually certainly be destroyed or be made uninhabitable by war, and all human life on the planet will cease.  Note the rationale already presented above.  Since human groups select leaders largely on the basis of their presumed ability to protect us from other groups, we tend to select as leaders those who are more aggressive, and these leaders then are more inclined than the average citizen to compete and fight with other leaders and groups.  As weapons become more and more powerful, sooner or later some leader (who is selected on his or her willingness to attack other groups when necessary) is going to use nuclear (or chemical) weapons (necessarily or unnecessarily), and no amount of treaties or sanctions or even military actions is going to prevent this.  (Note how North Korea and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons, and how difficult it is right now to induce Iran not to do so.)  Human beings have survived the nuclear threat so far, but mutually assured destruction is not a perfect deterrent, since human beings are not perfect.  So, it may not happen in your lifetime, but it may, if you do nothing about unbridled competition.  Think about it.  What are you willing to do now about creating some cultural expectations that will limit competition or change the meaning of competition?


Leaving aside for the moment competition for purposes of basic survival, let us look more closely at all other competition, the basic aim of which is to gain status or superiority (superiority in terms of either status, or resources, such as more ice cream than others, or both).  We can see that this wish for greater status or more resources is always associated with feeling disrespected or “of lower status” or by the fear of the consequences of being put in a lower status.  Before we want more ice cream than our siblings, we either think/feel that they are preferred or loved more than we are or that they are getting more ice cream than we are (or both), and in either case we feel “less than” or “of lower status.”  Even simply wanting an equal amount of ice cream is preceded by checking out in our minds whether the situation is fair and if it is not, what that means regarding our status relative to our siblings.  Consider the sports games of “your” teams or your bridge club, and how you are involved emotionally, and you will find a desire to gain status or not lose status.  (What does “winning” really mean but a change in status or resources?)  (A few people participate in competitions without really caring much about winning, and this is much less harmful.)  The determination to be of higher status on the part of men is one of the sources of the historically inferior positions of women and slaves.

To prove that most competition is aimed at gaining status or superiority, imagine yourself having all of the status, material goods, and feelings of love, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfilment that you want.  You would then have no personal reason to engage in competition, because it would not be “necessary,” and it would not improve your life in any way.  You might be “forced” into competition to overcome those who have less than you and who want some of what you have, but this proves the point that most competition is based in feeling put down, disrespected, or of “lower status,” or the fear of these things.   Note that some people compete with those higher than themselves in the hierarchy mainly in order to gain the resources and “things” that go with that higher position, but almost everyone doing that also feels the sting of not already being considered “good enough” to deserve that higher level of rewards, and they also enjoy feeling “better than” others after they achieve that higher position and rewards.  (Human beings “naturally” make the false conclusion that those who receive more rewards (love, ice cream, bigger office) “deserve” those rewards and are therefore “better than” they are themselves.)

The implication of this is that many of the harmful effects of competition could be eliminated if we could ensure (or at least work toward ensuring) that everyone felt basically respected and if we could minimize people feeling enough need for higher status that they use competition to accomplish that.

People who feel disrespected usually do so as a result of being treated in a disrespectful manner and as if they are inferior.  This may occur in families, in neighborhoods, in nations, or between nations.  In many families competition (or fighting) is a primary method of competing for resources, “rights,” and love, despite the conflict that it creates, and this immature pattern is carried into adulthood by many as the only way they know how to strive for what they need and want.

A great deal of competition within families is generated when some members, especially children, feel less loved and “less than” others in the family.  Either they don’t “feel” the same love that they think others are receiving or they don’t think that they are getting the same resources and privileges as others (getting less food, the less desirable bedroom, less praise, less support for activities, fewer birthday presents, more chores than others, etc.).  If you see this dynamic in your own family, you can work toward correcting it, or, especially if you are an adult now, you can work to improve your own opinion of yourself enough that your deprivation in the family becomes no longer important.  You will do much better in life by believing in yourself and loving yourself than you will by continuing to fight to get what you never had in your family.  (See my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem” for how to do this.)

The antidote to feeling inferior (or superior) is equality.  By approaching all situations with an expectation that all participants are equal in value and equal in our respect, we could minimize inferiority-motivated competition.  This does not mean that we must do away with all games in which some win and some lose, but it sets an expectation that all will be equally respected regardless of winning or losing.  Winners lording it over losers would, of course, have to be eliminated (and would not even occur, of course, if no one was motivated by a need to prove his or her worth or worthiness of respect by winning).  Think about who you would be if you reacted to your team’s fans boasting about how superior the team is with surprise or irritation, because being superior was in your view foolish and meaningless.  You would, of course, first have to change your own views, by giving up the potential benefits of being superior and accepting the benefits of equality.

In regard to the false conclusion that people who get or have more are “better than” others “below” them, we can all work to disabuse ourselves of this falsehood.  What people have is mainly determined by where they start out in the social hierarchy, though some rise in the hierarchy (to feel better about themselves and/or to get or have more) through their efforts or through luck, so position in the hierarchy does not equate to personal value, and we can train ourselves to tell ourselves so whenever we notice that we are feeling good about being higher than some others in the hierarchy.  We can choose to believe that every person has the same inherent, basic value just for being alive, and we can choose to act that way when we interact with others, no matter where they are in the hierarchy.  (This does not imply that people’s possessions or income would have to be equalized—simply that we train ourselves to believe that such differences are not important to us.)

We are all individuals and will never be equal in the sense of being identical, but our society is founded on a sense of the rightness of equality (even though at the time of the founding it was equality only for free White males with property).  We believe in everyone being equal before the law, and being equal would also imply every person’s right to exist, right to be who they are, right to be treated equally with others in the social group who are like them, and the right to be treated with equal respect as all others in the group.  In addition, everyone’s needs should be treated as equally important, even if they are not satisfied equally, and we should not view our needs as more important than the needs of those who are of lower status than we are.  Everyone has the same basic right to the good things that are available to all in life.

Look into your heart and your feelings and explore whether you feel basically equal to others and basically respected by others.  If you feel either inferior or superior to others, then you would do well to seek to understand why, since you need to change some attitudes so that you can feel that equality.  As adults we do not have to accept or go along with efforts by others to “make” us feel inferior or unworthy of respect (which is the outcome that those who strive for superiority want).  As children we are trained to accept our inferiority if someone stronger or older insists, but as an adult you can instead refuse to agree that losing implies inferiority or a loss of respect.  Imagine stating your disagreement when the winner is acting superior and calmly continuing to feel equal or OK.  This is very possible to learn, and I recommend it.  It is a very useful skill for your children to learn as well.

It will help if we change the emotional meanings of winning and losing.  If we view winning as an admirable demonstration of abilities, rather than as a demonstration of superiority, then competition will be much less harmful.  If we view losing as simply “not winning,” rather than as a loss of status or value, things would be better.

Another implication is that we could train children (and adults) to engage in competition only “for fun” or only without a human opponent (playing handball against yourself or tennis against a backboard).  Playing without an opponent sounds to many people like no fun at all, since they are motivated to watch or compete by the superiority-inferiority implications and care little about the skills displayed in the play.  Perhaps our great sports spectacles can disappear as we focus more on individuals and what they can do rather on who wins and who loses.  Taking away the President’s power to make offensive war might mean that many candidates would no longer run for the office, but that would be OK.  They, and the others who aren’t interested in sports without superiority, could hopefully transfer their desires to “win” to collecting food for everyone in the nation who is hungry or some other such challenging prosocial activity.  Electing those who are not the highest in aggressiveness would not endanger the country, since the instinct to defend is inherent equally in all of us.

If you strive to feel “better than” others, ask yourself what this does for you?  What are you trying to gain by being “better than” others?  The chances are good that you will find that you are trying to make up for feeling inferior or for being treated as inferior.  If so, then you might consider other ways to feel good about yourself, so that you won’t have to work so hard at it.

Another important but hidden consideration is that if you view some others as “above” and superior to you (music idols, leaders, sports heroes), then you are making yourself inferior to them, and this will mean lower self-esteem for you.  It is better if you see yourself and all persons as having the same basic worth.  You can admire others without making them superior to you.

Ask yourself whether you give basic respect to everyone, regardless of social standing or ability.  Are you motivated to compete largely to be “better than” others?  Why is this important to you?  What would be wrong with everyone having the same basic social value?   Of course, we will continue to value different people differently, based on their direct value to us, but in terms of basic social equality, why not grant that equality to everyone?  Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to compete all the time, not to have to defend yourself all the time, even from friends and family?  Do you and your siblings still compete?  What for?  Are you not valuable enough to yourself that having more of your parents’ love and approval than your siblings is not really important anymore?  Can you see yourself letting go of that competition, even if your siblings then feel that they are “winning”?  What would it be like to watch them think that they are “winning”?

Another issue in our desire to rise in status is our degree of desire for the material benefits of higher status, so this is another area to explore if you wish to move toward a stance of greater basic equality with all people.  In this country, substantial efforts are made to cause you to want more and “better” “things,” including the ocean of advertising that we live in and the many daily messages that urge us to “keep up with the Joneses” and not get “left behind.”  In order to find your own level of actual desire, it is necessary to recognize and discount almost all of these communications, and it is necessary to know what you really want, as opposed to what is offered to you.  At some point (when your car, house, and TV are big enough), you probably don’t really need a better or bigger car or house or TV, and if you can get in touch with this aspect of your personal reality, then you can readily ignore those messages and live your own life.  (If for some practical reason—not pride or status—you do need a bigger TV, then fine.)  If you can live according to your actual needs, then you can invest more in retirement savings or in activities to deepen and expand your (and your children’s) understanding of the world (travel?) and ability to function well (skills acquisition?).  Remember that advertising, with all of its emotional messages, wants to cause you to identify with a company or product as if it were your friend, when it is not.  (If you are inclined to investigate it, Buddhism offers a comprehensive theory of how attachment, as in your attachment to the company that challenges you to say its name without smiling, is the cause of most suffering.)

If equality is to be meaningful, it will depend on evidences of equality.  That is, if everyone is equal, then you will have to share some things evenly among all concerned, rather than taking a bigger share yourself when you have the power to take more for yourself.  Of course, you would still have the right to everything you earn, but if the group buys a pizza, then everyone must get an equal share (if they want it), and if the city builds parks for the people, then every area of the city deserves an equal number and equal quality of parks, regardless of the average income in the area.  Otherwise, you are proving that people are not equal.

Equality will also depend on you seeing the value in every individual, regardless of their beauty, wealth, or abilities.  This is difficult, because we are trained to rank order everyone in value/status.  Can you imagine every individual having a basic value or worth, aside from his or her status rank? Can you imagine that these basic values are all equal?  People will perhaps always strive for added value and to be especially valuable to certain others, but in terms of that inner worth, just for existing and being human, perhaps we can let others be worth just as much as we are.

Another way to enhance equality is by trying to achieve “win-win” solutions to problems whenever possible–i.e., to figure out solutions or agreements in which everyone gains something, even if those gains are not equal.  “Win-win” solutions demonstrate to all involved that everyone’s needs are at least recognized, even if they are not all equally valued.

Being superior is so seductive, and we think that it feels so good to be superior.  That feeling is triumphal and represents our assessment that we are “better than” others.  That feeling takes away, though, from the potential for us to feel close to others–the good feeling that comes from being allied, close, and trusting.  Perhaps this feeling of closeness, that depends on general equality, may be better for us over time than the aloneness that results from being better than others.  If you feel better than others, try adding to your closeness, and if you feel worth less than others, work on feeling equal.

Ask yourself whether you would prefer to live in a world of competition for respect and goods, or a world of basic equality where competing and “winning” were less important.  It would be a significant change if we had a world of equality, but I submit that living in a world of equality would be more pleasant and comfortable, with less fighting, conflict, and hatred.  This would be a world where strength is valued more than power, benevolence more than domination, cooperation more than winning, success more than superiority, responsibility more than opportunism, and empathy more than manipulation.  I am quite sure that I would prefer that world.

You may view that as unrealistic idealism, but society is created anew every day by the behavior of each of us as individuals, and you can decide each day how to behave with respect to yourself and with respect to your fellow human beings.  The encouraging things about all of us having basic respect and equality is that it is good for everyone else but also good for us, too, in terms of feeling more secure, more comfortable with ourselves and with others, and emotionally closer with others.