The good and bad of being competitive

Beth Bradford, Ph.D.
4 min readMar 19, 2019

As a lifelong athlete, I considered myself to be a rather competitive person. I thrived when I had a competitive other with which to spar. A friend of mine from the eighth grade would compete with me for grades, and it made me a better student. I even considered getting my Ph.D. a competition because I wanted to be the first to complete my dissertation in my matriculating class.

However, competition can become excessive if we aren’t aware of how it can control us. “Competitiveness is, however, both a virtue and a vice. One person’s win can be another person’s loss, and the drive to be better than others, when taken too far, can appear ruthless and selfish” (Hibbard & Buhrmester, 2010, p. 412). When a person’s desire is to outperform others, it stems from a need to demonstrate power and is related to aggression. Consider how polarizing competitiveness can make our society.

This type of competitiveness, competing to win (CW), has been found to disrupt community and contribute to relationship problems (Hibbard & Buhrmester, 2010). Hypercompetitive individuals had less concern for others (Ryckman, Libby, van den Borne, Gold, & Lindner, 1997), and scored higher on Machiavellianism (Houston, Queen, Cruz, Vlahov, & Gosnell, 2015) and overt narcissism measures (Luchner, Houston, Walker, & Houston, 2011). In other words, competitiveness can be harmful in your relationships with others.

Stapel and Koomen (2005) found that if competitiveness was primed, it elicited a contrast mindset, which emphasizes differentiation rather than community. For me, when I knew a competitive individual was racing with me, it elicited my own sense of hypercompetitiveness. Although there were times when I cheered on my fellow triathletes, if I considered them “rival,” I could reach down a little deeper into my own athletic ability. I would feel a sense of euphoria when I “beat” them, but I would feel a sense of “defeat” if they beat me. This would continue to fuel my training, and I would keep track of my “rival” via social media and race tracking websites.

The “good” competitiveness

Competitiveness isn’t always a bad trait — it depends upon the goals of the competitor. Ryckman et al. (1997) found that hypercompetitive individuals value power over others, but “personal development…

Beth Bradford, Ph.D.

Former TV person, college professor and media researcher. Ironman triathlete, meditation teacher and yoga instructor.