The psychology of competition – part I

Füzes Nóra | psychologist, junior consultant

Füzes Nóra | psychologist, junior consultant

3 things to know about competition

When we hear the word competition, we are likely to think of some kind of aggressive fan group, political battle or workplace competition. But the situation is much more complex.

We tend to think of competition as something evil, but fair competition builds character, contributes to healthy self-confidence and promotes cooperation between people. The aim is not to avoid competition, as in today’s world, even if we wanted to, but to deal with it appropriately and flexibly.


1) Giving up competition is not always a failure

According to evolutionary biology, the prize for winning among animals is being able to be higher up the social hierarchy, dominance, more resources and thus greater opportunity to pass on one’s genes. If we look around, we see that it is not very different in the world of humans. Winning is a status builder for us too and helps us to fit into the social hierarchy.

Importantly, in both animals and humans, a strategy of giving up can sometimes be useful, especially when there is no chance of winning. We often think that “Giving up is for the weak”, when in fact, backing up and getting out of a situation is sometimes the smartest and bravest self-protective choice, whether it is in the workplace, in human relationships or in other life situations. So giving up is not always a failure.


2) Competition is neither harmful nor beneficial in itself

The constructive or destructive impact of competition is basically determined by 3 factors and their interplay:

  • The means of competition, or the “how” of competition. From physical violence to lying and to helping others, the means of competition are diverse. Whatever means are chosen, they can all be conducive to winning, but the psychological and other consequences of harming others can vary widely.
  • The stakes of the competition are what we are competing for. These can be a wide variety of things, such as the love or attention of another person, material goods, opportunities, position, etc.
  • The field of competition, that is, what we are competing for. These can be talents, abilities and opportunities.


3) Characteristics of hypercompetitive people and competition-avoiders

Although you might think that the two personality types are exactly opposite, Karen Horney says that there are surprisingly many similarities between them.

A hypercompetitive person is the one who creates competition around him or herself in essentially every situation and every prospect in life, in order to maintain self-image and increase self-confidence. Criticism and failure are particularly hard to take and sometimes he reacts with outbursts or passive aggression.

Contrary to the stereotype, competition-avoidant personality types are often not avoiding these scenarios in order to escape competition. Sometimes, on the contrary, it is an attempt to control the desire for increased competition, fuelled by fear of the potential losses that may result from winning. Such a loss could be, for example, a deteriorating human relationship, rejection, loss of love or acceptance. They may also have a similar fear of actual defeat for the same reasons, because they have the fantasy that failure is not only a failure of their performance, but also of their whole personality.


Fülöp, M., & Nagy, T. (2013). Our lives in a competitive world: the psychology of winning and losing