“How Winning Leads to Cheating” [Scientific American]

Competition — Unsplash

How competition shapes our daily life behaviors? That’s the question asked by Amos Schurr, a business and management professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Ilana Ritov, a psychologist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Their results suggest that the winner of a competition is more likely to overclaim his gains, which may ends up in cheating and other undesired behaviors. On the contrary, hitting a goal does not lead to such overclaim.

Is this study enough to say that competition is a bad thing, and that we should turn our competitive economies to goal-setting-achieving ones? I don’t think so, for different reasons.

First, economics hugely suggests that competition is a powerful force. Thanks to it, we have been able to move from malthusian economies to abundance economies, where, for instance, children are not likely to die at a young age anymore (yes, capitalism is able to do that!).

Second, this study suggests that the behaviors of the winners may have some undesirable aspects; but competition is not only about winners, it’s about the whole race participants. And maybe the bad behaviors coming from some winners are counteracted with some positive ones coming from the other participants. This question is not easy, and may need a lot of research to be carefully adressed.

Third, and maybe it’s my most important remark, the whole study has been done in a laboratory, where people have been asked to do some sort of competitive task (and the scientists monitoring them). Lab experiments are super powerful tools, but they always raise the question of what social scientists call “external validity”: as the lab is not the real life, how can be sure that what we observe in the lab replicates in the real life (or the other way around)? Usually, we can’t, or it’s hard to assess, so all results coming from lab experiments should be understood with this limitation in mind. Of course, it does not mean that lab experiments should be dismissed: in science, nothing is perfect, it’s always a matter of “doing the best with the imperfect tools you have”. But to me, being careful on the results limitations is something as important as the results themselves.

Have a good read 🙂