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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

In favour of cooperation

Competition has become so pervasive in all areas of life, that we no longer see it - much like a fish probably doesn’t notice water. Yet Alfie Kohn, an author who has written on human behaviour, education and parenting says that while we may not notice its effects, there are very real and negative consequences to competing the way we do.

The idea of cooperating instead of competing is often seen as idealistic. It’s often met with a patronising smile. It is sometimes ridiculed as a childish and unrealistic vision. People even say that it’s only those who are “weak” or “afraid they’ll lose”, who want to avoid competition.

But after looking at much of the literature on the subject, Kohn discovered that cooperation is far more effective in very practical ways. Even when looking at nature, cooperation seems to be favoured over competition. (This is contrary to the popular idea that nature is all about “survival of the fittest”). With this in mind, it’s worth looking into cooperation. After all, without cooperation human civilisation could not survive.

But isn’t it innate in human beings to compete?

Competition seems to be part of the human condition. And we can certainly see it throughout nature. But there is a strong case to be made in favour of cooperation.

It is very seductive to ignore the evidence that supports the inherent wiring of cooperation, and let ourselves act from our base instincts. It allows us to essentially say: “seeing as competition is part of who I am, that means there’s nothing I can do to change it, I’m completely justified in competing wherever and whenever I want, and if I experience any adverse consequences from this, I can just blame it on the fact that competition is innate within all of us.”

Whether we compete or cooperate seems to have more to do with a learned behaviour.

Before we could even speak we were surrounded by competition: Our parents may have competed with each other to see who would be the better parent, and who we (the child) preferred. They may have then competed with other parents to boast about who’s child walked and talked first, whose child was smarter, stronger, more sociable, better at reading, writing, maths etc. We may have then competed for our parent’s attention if we had siblings.

At school we learnt that if we knew the answer to a question we put our hand up. If someone else put their hand up first but answered the question incorrectly, we learnt that it was our chance to show just how smart we were and to outperform our classmates. We learnt that their failure was our opportunity. Their suffering was our joy. If our work was the best in the class it got put on display.

During lessons, if the class got a little loud and distracted, our teacher might have said “I like the way Joanne is sitting nice and quiet”. We didn’t think much of it at the time but our teacher had just created another competition to be the quietest student (and by the way, everyone except Joanne had already lost).

On the sports field we got divided up into teams to beat the other team and the winners sometimes got prizes. We may have been told “it’s just a game and the important thing is to have fun” yet beneath those words it was very clear that the number one objective was to win and do everything we could to make that happen.

Not only was competition actively advocated in this way as a constant undertone to every lesson, game and activity, cooperation was often seen as a bad thing. If we worked with a fellow student to find a solution to a maths problem, we were told that’s “cheating.”

Once we'd been thoroughly taught how to compete in every single thing we do, we were then let out into the world and naturally applied what we had learnt. In other words, we applied a mindset of competition. A mindset that says “If I win you lose, and if you win I lose”.

We then have kids and we teach them how the world works by our actions, our words and our attitude and the cycle continues.

After all of this indoctrination, after seeing everyone around us behave in competitive ways, speak with underlying assumptions of competition, after being rewarded for acting competitively and shamed for losing, shamed for not being competitive enough, people then look around and say “see, competition is innate”. But that’s looking at the effect and completely ignoring the cause. (In fact, it’s only looking at part of the effect, because despite all this, we can still see cooperation taking place.)

That’s like watching a contortionist perform an act and then concluding that it’s innate for human beings to twist their bodies in impossible positions.

The reality is, as human beings we are creatures of habit, we repeat what we see and what we learn (especially early on in life where our behaviours and identity are being moulded). And because it is so pervasive, because everyone we look at is doing the same thing, few pause to question all this.

Before all this training and pressure to compete sets in, we can observe that many children naturally cooperate when playing games. For example, they may spontaneously take turns, share toys or comfort one another.

Studies found that with only a brief period of about 3 weeks, both children and adults (who were previously in a learned state of competition) could learn to be cooperative instead. Most people actually prefer learning and playing in cooperative settings. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to say they prefer competition, but then when they get a taste of cooperation, they change their mind. This is telling of just how pervasive competition is.

That’s like asking someone if they like Italian cuisine, and they say “no” without having ever tried it. This seems more of a childlike response, rather than a mature and wise conclusion.

While it can be easy to say that it’s just people having fun and preferences and it’s not indicative of what is needed in the real adult world, there are clear benefits to cooperation. If you feel joyful doing something, your brain functions at a higher level. You have more energy and better engagement with the task (engagement that will be deeper and last longer all while needing less grunt work to “just get through the day”). All of this is conducive to a better working environment and ultimately better outcomes.

But competition is so pervasive that it can seem like the solution to all problems. For example, If our dad got the highest batting average at school, then it is up to us to do the same. Yet if our dad did poorly in sports, it is also up to us to prove our skill and our worth by being the best.

Sports are interesting as we quite often naturally become competitive when playing them. But that has more to do with the structure of the game itself rather than a direct commentary on our nature. No matter how hard you try and no matter how good of a sportsman you are, you can not play a traditional game of basketball without competing. And many sports players quit due to the unsavoury flavour of competition.

How many people do you know (and you might be one of them), who actively try to avoid competition because it feels uncomfortable?

Rather than considering this more deeply, we’re shown books, workshops and blogs on overcoming that avoidance.

The underlying assumption of these books and training is that people need to get over their resistance to triumphing over others (whether that’s on the sports field, at work or at home). It’s as though not wanting to win (or not wanting to make someone lose and suffer) is some character defect. That’s like saying that a soldier just needs to get over that whole “feeling bad about murdering someone else" thing.

Sure, it makes a soldier's job easier and it’s what every other soldier is doing, but it doesn’t mean they’re weak or poorly wired if they hesitate before ending another person's life. That hesitation seems more to be a sign of health rather than something to be anaesthetised.

“The inability to observe discrepant abilities without turning the situation into a contest is a learned disposition.”

Alphie Kohn

Crossing countries and cultures to gain wisdom

We can look to other countries and cultures that don’t place such a strong emphasis on competition to see that cooperation is very natural when the setting changes, when competition isn’t drilled into every individual and area of life from day one. Plus, we can see that cooperation really does work, it’s not some pipe dream.

The extent of cooperation may have been the distinguishing factor in prehistoric humans. Kohn writes: “A growing number of anthropologists are concluding that cooperation—not brain size or the use of tools, and certainly not aggressiveness—defined the first humans.”

Here are just a few examples of people living in more cooperative ways and demonstrating cooperative mindsets when compared to modern, western people:

  • The Zuni Indians place little value on material goods and wealth circulates freely. Therefore, there is no competition economically.

  • Israeli Kibbutz children were better able to cooperate when given tasks to complete as part of scientific research when compared to children from urban Israeli areas. The former had a high degree of organisation and spontaneously divided prizes equally between group members The later fruitlessly competed with one another in unorganised ways.

  • Mexican children were more cooperative with one another compared to Anglo Americans, who would compete even when cooperation was rewarded. For example, they would take away another child’s toy out of spite twice as often as Mexican children.

  • The Tangu of New Guinea prefer non competitive games. One of these is where two teams spin tops, with the objective being to reach an exact draw. (Note how this is not easier than if they were competing. In fact it may be harder to try and get an exact draw than it is to get the highest score).

You’ve probably had the experience of having scarcity of some kind, and that made you compete and focus only on what you could get, without considering others. But you’ve also probably had the experience of being in a great mood or having abundance of some kind, and that propelled you to cooperate, to think of others and to give (and when you did those things it probably felt a little euphoric). This shows that while competition seems to be a base instinct, we are also wired to connect with others and cooperate.

Furthermore, the scarcity or abundance of materials and goods is not necessarily the determining factor in whether groups cooperate or compete. It’s not always the case that the moment there’s scarcity people compete and the moment there’s abundance people cooperate. Because cooperating in times of scarcity is actually a wise choice as it makes the most of what everyone has. In fact, cooperation could be the reason/cause for abundance in certain groups, rather than the effect of abundance.

Imagine you’re living in a small village but you’re unable to catch many animals to eat. However, if you decided to team up with someone else in the village you might have a better chance of bringing home some food by developing and using more sophisticated and thus more successful hunting tactics. And if the whole village works together and shares food, it means that if one person has an unlucky day at getting food, they don’t have to go hungry and weak. There are more supporting pillars rather than everything relying on one individual.

For all the competition in the world, we can already see plenty of cooperation. When the roof of your house needs repairing, you can call someone who specialises in that rather than spending time and energy trying to do it yourself.

It seems that competition leads to more competition and cooperation leads to more cooperation. The one you feed is the one that will grow. If you start an arm wrestle with someone and they start pushing your arm down, you will naturally push back and try to win. If I steal something from you, you will be more inclined and feel more justified to steal something from me. But if I help you, you will be more inclined to help me. If I give you a gift, you will be more inclined to give me a gift in return. In other words, circumstances matter. What we learn and see others doing matters. How the rules of the game are set up matter.

Imagine this. You’re in school and your teacher, rather than getting you to work individually, asks a question to the whole class. Then she says she wants you to help each other solve it. So you turn to the classmate on your right and you discuss the problem, using your combined intelligence. You give it a go but you’re unable to crack it. Just at that moment your teacher comes around and congratulates both of you on trying and making a mistake, “good on you” she says. Then, you both turn to the group behind you, they’ve gone about it differently, and you realise they have a missing piece to the problem. You share what you have with them, you’re closer to solving the problem but alas, still, you can’t figure it out. The door opens and students from the year above come in to help. One of them comes up to your little group and helps you finally figure out the solution.

All those elements of cooperation have been noted in schools in Japan. Imagine if that was how we encouraged everyone to work? To cooperate, to learn from on another, to get guidance and truly engage?

“Pioneers were not competitive people, they were a cooperative people. They wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”

William O. Johnson

Looking to the brilliance of nature

We can go deeper than looking at other societies and cultures, and turn to nature. Unfortunately, we have been told (whether directly or indirectly), that much of nature is a brutal battle which consists of “survival of the fittest”.

However, researchers are now finding that things such as mutual aid and support, efficient use of the available food, better care of the young and the elimination of conflict is far more common and beneficial all around.

Think about the simplest form of conflict, where two animals are fighting for food or a mate. Even for the one that emerges victorious, there are consequences. They will almost always have some form of injury from the fight and they will have used up tremendous amounts of energy and strength in order to win. Thus, in that moment of victory, they’re at their weakest. What if another animal comes to fight them now? The odds of winning keep going down.

Nature shows us many ways that cooperation can take place. For example, some species migrate, which means that a single resource can be used by multiple species. W. C. Allee provides other examples:

“Lapwings protect other birds from predators; baboons and gazelles work together to sense danger (the former watching, the latter listening and smelling); chimpanzees hunt cooperatively and share the spoils; pelicans fish cooperatively. Indeed, the production of oxygen by plants and carbon dioxide by animals could be said to represent a prototype for the cooperative interaction that becomes more pronounced and deliberate in the higher species. None of this, however, makes good television. It is easy to ignore an arrangement that does not call attention to itself.”

Those last two sentences are key “None of this, however, makes good television. It is easy to ignore an arrangement that does not call attention to itself.” This may be the defining reason as to why we believe competition is the “way things are”, whether that’s in nature, at work, at school or at home. You’ll notice two people fighting, but you won’t notice two people giving each other space so that they can both be at peace.

If we define success in the natural world as leaving more offspring (rather than dying out), competition is not required. This can be achieved (and in most cases is achieved) via cooperation without the brutal downside of competition. Animals can find food, mate and take care of the young without the inherent need for competition. Yes, there is competition and brutality in nature (and in our “civilised” world) but cooperation is far more beneficial and effective in very real ways.

Even within our own bodies, cooperation is the ideal. You wouldn’t want the right side of your body to compete with the left side of your body. That’s inefficient and creates more struggle. It’s when things are working together that we experience synergy, efficiency and flow. That’s the power of working on yourself, working with your mind and body so that you’re not at war with yourself. It doesn’t necessarily mean things are easy, it just means there isn’t a win/lose scenario.

If we can learn to compete, we can learn to cooperate. Cooperation is already wired within us, it is more sustainable, more efficient and more effective. We have been taught that competition is the better way (and sometimes the only way), but hopefully you now see that’s not true. We can mimic the natural world, we can acknowledge the research, we just need to begin.


No contest by Alfie Kohn

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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