Monday, December 27, 2010

Competition and Cooperation

Hands Off Newtown
Hands Off Newtown, Sydney, 2010

Marnie Louise Froberg of Enlightenment Ward raised a pretty good question the other day. It concerns one of those cultural assumptions that are so fundamental that most of the time it never even occurs to anyone that they're there.
Is there such a thing as healthy competition? I don’t really think so. I have yet to see one example of competition where all, or even the majority of the participants feel satisfied with the outcome. If someone can name one such situation I’ll be happy to reconsider that position.
Pretty much everything in the societies I've lived in is built on comparison and competition. At school, we're graded on a curve. Hobbies come with awards and rewards and rankings and goals built in. Sports are usually competitive, and if not, at least you're expected to keep track of how much you bench press, how many steps you take a day, or how far you can run in the Cooper test, or if you've done the double century yet. If you take up photography and join a camera club, pretty soon there'll be club competition where you'll see your photo being judged by a jury and then maybe get a little ribbon, or not. If you don't, nowadays you'll probably wind up putting your photos in some kind of social networking thing that has thumbs-up or stars or view counts.

Regardless of political alignment, "competition is good" is a truism. The only questions even asked are about which competitions to participate in, and how to find a winning strategy. It is, perhaps, natural for us to see things as zero-sum games, with the spoils going to the victors and the losers getting shafted.
Competition is gonna be much more fierce. And the winners of this competition will be the countries that have the most educated work force, a serious commitment to research and technology, and access to quality infrastructure… Those are the seeds of recovery in the 21st century. … At this moment, the most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans. It's between America and our economic competitors all around the world. That's the competition we gotta spend time thinking about. [applause]
It's a shame that even someone as intelligent and well-educated as Barack Obama doesn't appear to understand how the world economy works. It isn't a zero-sum game. Comparative advantage is basic economics, and he really ought to know better. Or perhaps he's just pandering to his audience, as politicians do.

Yet I don't think Marnie's point that participants generally aren't satisfied with the outcomes of competitions quite hits the mark either. People are dissatisfied creatures. We're generally not satisfied with anything, except maybe momentarily, so if your criterion for healthiness is that everybody involved should be satisfied with it, then precious few things on this green earth are healthy.

Competition is a social activity. While the rewards (and penalties) of competition are sometimes material, the social aspect has a far more powerful pull on the psyche. Even in that most material of domains, the market, there's a certain point where wealth becomes an abstraction. Warren Buffett's conditions of living would not change one whit if he did give away 95% of his wealth. Most of those billions are markers in a game, as imaginary—or real—to him as a digital badge in an informal Internet competition. Yet he keeps on competing, long after any material necessity to do so is gone.

We're social primates. Monkeys. As such, we're intensely and deeply aware of social status. Social networks like Facebook or Twitter make this status visible in crude ways; you can see who's "friends" with whom, how many "friends" each of us has, and so on. Some sites, such as PhotoSIG make this their fundamental operating mechanism. The cream rises to the top, the dregs fall to the bottom, the rest is circulating in-between.

The competitive drive is linked to a neurochemical mechanism, the dopamine reward system. This is the plumbing that gives you a warm wash of pleasure when a group laughs at your joke, your boss praises you in the Christmas speech, or you get maximum marks on your graduate thesis. It's also responsible for the sting that comes when the joke receives hisses and boos, your boss frowns at you, or you flunk your thesis. It's these washes of pleasure and stings of pain that keep social groups together. They're the carrots and sticks that make it cohere; that reward conformance to expectations and punish misfits and rebels. Pleasure wouldn't be pleasure, pain wouldn't be pain if they didn't goad us to grasp at the one and avoid the other.

Attachment and aversion. Those two great shackles of samsara. From them, competition is born. It is that close to the roots.

The flip side of competition is cooperation. It is the key to our success, and indeed survival, as a species. That isn't unique to us either: all social species cooperate to some extent, and more intelligent ones such as birds and mammals do it in quite sophisticated ways. Often the forms of cooperation are cultural artifacts. African wild dogs reared in a zoo and introduced into the wild starve, because they don't know the sophisticated cooperative methods they use to hunt. Among their wild cousins, these methods are passed down—and most probably refined through a kind of cultural evolution—through the generations. The zoo-born dogs have the same genes and same instincts as the wild ones, but not the same upbringing.

For human groups to cooperate, they need to cohere. The dynamics of group coherence are the same as they always have been, whether we're talking about a hunter-gatherer hunting band, a Mongol warband, or a team of software developers. A team that jells is much more powerful than the sum of its parts. It is capable of almost magical things. That same dopamine-reward system that drives competition also drives cooperation. The team will set up internal reward and punishment cycles that push its members to conform, and train them to respond to the collective's needs almost without thinking of it. We experience this as a powerful sense of camaraderie, community, and safety. A human can only really relax if he knows that he has comrades who have his back. For a social primate, being deprived of this is poison. People can and do die of loneliness.

Such groups will also develop defense mechanisms. Anyone who has had any experience with teamwork will have come across situations when the dynamics go bad. Suddenly the personal and collective goals don't align. There's someone who doesn't communicate, or doesn't share the fundamental values of the rest of the team, or doesn't play by the rules that have emerged in it. Suddenly, the wheels that turned as if by themselves, frictionless, will be full of sand. There will be a grating and a whining, a tangling of gears, an emergence of explicit process, of cliques and defined roles and formal positions of authority.
When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretence begins.

When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.
When the great Tao is forgotten, the once-magical team goes awry. A number of things can happen then. They are usually painful to the people concerned. Perhaps the group expels the troublemakers and returns to something resembling its previous state. Sometimes the troublemaker and the team reach a compromise, and a new harmony arises. Perhaps it develops explicit codes of morality and mechanisms of enforcement—wisdom and intelligence, kindness and morality, piety and devotion, loyal ministers—that put enough muscle behind those grating wheels to keep them moving, even if the old magic is lost, never to be found again. Or, perhaps, the team breaks up altogether.

Of course, many communities never find the great Tao to start with. Perhaps they're too diverse to start with, with an insufficient basis of shared values. In such a situation, what will emerge is a power struggle, with competing visions of what the team should look like, or how its members should behave, locking horns. The team-defense mechanisms of reward and punishment kick in even before there was a team.

Things get progressively more difficult as the group size grows. Primate bands number in the dozens at the most. If they grow beyond that, the centrifugal forces get progressively bigger, which means that progressively more power must be used to keep them together. Societies like ours, where millions of people cooperate in some meaningful sense are almost miraculous to start with, and even the most gentle, liberal, and peaceful ones ever invented rely on quite implacable enforcement mechanisms to keep them going.

While I don't think any society is free from competition, since it is something intrinsic to social primates, the structures societies put in place do reinforce or restrict it; affect the balance between competition and cooperation. Our consumerist world is hypercompetitive. We're constantly barraged by signals attempting to hijack that dopamine reward system of ours. Those dopamine rushes are like drugs, and it's quite easy to get addicted to them. Just ask anyone who's been stuck playing just one more round of Tetris, or Civilization, depending. The post-Christmas sales just starting up take this to the streets. Our entertainment consists of top-ten hit lists, reality TV, game shows, sports. Our political system is based on contested elections, with the winners getting all or most of the power, the losers getting to shout from the sidelines. And so the wheel turns.

So, is there such a thing as healthy competition? I don't know. I don't even know if there are any answers to be had to that question. I do think that asking it leads to some interesting places, though, which is why it's a good question.

I don't think there can be a community of unenlightened humans without a degree of competition, just like such a community is defined by the way it cooperates. I do think, though, that there is far too much competition in the world we have constructed for ourselves. I'm sure there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation that we're missing, simply because we're so heavily deluged with signals reinforcing our competitive tendencies. It might be dawning middle-age nostalgia—I'll be 40 in another few months—but I seem to remember that things weren't always as cutthroat as this. There were forms of cooperation that have disappeared by now, and forms of competition that have emerged.

Could we even imagine a society stripped of most of its built-in mechanisms of competition? For example, what would school be like, if there were no tests, no grades, no honor roll, nobody flunking out, no team captain, nobody left sitting last on the bench? It could be done, I'm sure. Humans used to pass on their cultural baggage without that stuff just fine. Australian aboriginal elders possess knowledge and skills every bit as intricate as those of a Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, or the Dalai Lama, and they're passed along without any examination papers being involved. That doesn't mean that everyone should be the same; obviously, we're not, and attempting to coerce us into a mold will be painful and will backfire.

Could we try dismantling some of the competitive mechanisms we've wired into our social fabric, and see what happens, just as a little social experiment? What about looking for opportunities for cooperation? I'm sure we're missing plenty, being so focused on fighting and winning.

Just some thoughts in the waning days of the year, looking back, and looking forward to, perhaps, a less competitive 2011.


  1. When you talk to artists, inventors or others who create, their reasons for doing so are deeply personal. Some kind of inner drive that has nothing to do with competition when they are in the creative moment. And if it is driven by making something better, more popular, etc. than some other guy the work is generally second rate and frankly boring. It's the work of a copyist.

    What becomes apparent with competitive situations is the sameness of it all. The same race being run infinitely. Few new paths taken.

    I imagine sometimes various what if scenarios. What if all the money spent on football (american or european) were spent on education the children of the world. What if that gross spectacle that is the Olympics were converted into an idea factory for the future of human survival. Sure the athletes could still train, contribute their physical talents as could everyone else.
    What if when we are watching television there is a breaking news bulletin that states "We've now found a cure for AIDS/Cancer/Diabetes/Heart disease? And what if people went out in the streets and celebrated that instead of the "Bills" or whoever they are winning the superbowl?
    Hard for me to believe my idealism still exists at this age but there it is. Still got faith in my fellow primates.

  2. I agree about all of that, especially the wellsprings of creatitivity.

    However, I think there's more to competition than those institutionalized forms. Even without them, there's competition for status, with which comes all else. IOW, I'm arguing that competition is intrinsic to social primates—you observed your troop of rhesus monkeys doing much the same, I recall—and therefore neither 'healthy' nor 'unhealthy' as such; however, the healthiness or unhealthiness of various institutional forms of competition—the stock market, the Olympics, Big Brother etc.—is certainly debatable, as is the set of signals society sends about competition or cooperation.

    Wouldn't people celebrating a cure for cancer be turning the discovery of that into a competition of sorts, too? Surely the discoverer would be the hero, getting the dopamine rush of the adulation of the crowd, just like the American Idol winner does now. Wouldn't the likely result be a race to find that cure and get that rush, with, once again, winners and losers?

    IOW, I don't have a problem with competition per se, but the way the society we've built institutionalizes it, and turns competition for its own sake into both entertainment and a virtue, as well as having far more institutions and feedback cycles reinforcing competition than cooperation.

  3. Cooperation is collective competition. Individuals cooperating to enhance competitiveness beyond individual ability.

    Competition between individuals occurs within a cooperative collective society. Competition has rules, stated or not.

    Might as well speak of coopetition and comperation. "Co-comp" dynamics and such. Yin Yang of business, etc. No good, no bad - at least not in the inherently perceived dichotomies themselves. As empty as anything else.

    One thing, all this. No real separation. Like breath. The inhale cooperatively working with atmospheric pressure, the exhale competitively pushing back!

    K Grey