The good and bad of being competitive

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 competitors” see competitive situations as an opportunity to improve. Hibbard & Buhrmester (2010) identified some competitors as concerned with outperforming others and winning (CW), but they found others who were competing to excel (CE). These competitors were more cooperative than those who were focused on winning.

Ryckman, Hammer, Kaczor, & Gold (1996) found that those who compete for personal development feel lower fluctuations in self-esteem and more connection with others. This type of competitiveness can be positive because it is less concerned with losing and more concerned with the development of the self. Personal development competitors are more concerned with the process than results, which resonated with the philosophy of my Ironman coach.

When you consider competition in business or politics, the same rules might apply. Healthy competition that is concerned with creating bonds and building community allows us to thrive and grow. On the other hand, competing to win or being hypercompetitive can create divisions. It asks, “whose team are you on?” If we lose one battle, we become obsessed over winning the next one, rather than recognizing we’re all on the same team.

This article contains part of an excerpt from a research paper, The Thrill to Compete: A Personal Story on Exercise Dependence


Hibbard, D. R., & Buhrmester, D. (2010). Competitiveness, gender, and adjustment among adolescents. Sex Roles, 63, 412–424. Doi: 10.1007/s11199–010–9809-z

Ryckman, R. M., Libby, C. R., van den Borne, B., Gold, J. A., & Lindner. M. A. (1997). Values of hypercompetitive and personal development competitive individuals. Journal of Personality Assessment, 69(2), 271–283.

Houston, J. M., Queen, J. S., Cruz, N., Vlahov, R., & Gosnell, M. (2015). Personality traits and winning: Competitiveness, hypercompetitiveness, and Machiavellianism. North American Journal of Psychology, 17(1), 105–112.

Luchner, A. F., Houston, J. M., Walker, C., & Houston, M. A. (2011). Exploring the relationship between two forms of narcissism and competitiveness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 779–782. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.06.033

Stapel, D. A., & Koomen, W. (2005). Competition, cooperation, and the effect of others on me. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 1029–1038. doi: 10.1037/0022- 3514.88.6.1029

Ryckman, R. M., Hammer, M., Kaczor, L. M., & Gold, J. A. (1996). Construction of a personal development competitive attitude scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 66, 374–385.

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

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