I just finished reading Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman’s book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.
I am highlighting more sections than not in this fascinating exploration of when, why, and how we engage in and deal with competition. Much of the research comes from sports and business, but it has some personal applications as well.
There is some interesting tie-in with the last (also fascinating!) book that I read, Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha because both explore competitive behaviour.
In the latter book, the authors argue that long-term monogamy is not a natural (historical or universal) state for humans and that polyamory / promiscuity (minus your judgemental connotations, please) is possible, despite our assumption that sexual jealousy would prevent this. Fearing the loss of and competition for what is seen as a limited/scarce resource (sex and affection) makes our natural tendency to share seem impossible.
I believe a lot of our modern social anxiety comes from two sources – lack of intimacy – and I don’t just mean sex – (too little or from too few sources) and uncertainty about our social connections. Humans use touch and (varying forms of) intimacy as ways of creating and maintaining social bonds. North American culture is repressive and tends to sexualize touch and nudity to the point where our bodies and desires sometimes seem shameful. We are constantly fighting our innate human needs for touch and connection. Top Dog discusses how what makes teams (specifically in a work setting, but it seems applicable to all social groups) successful is everyone knowing their role within the group. When we are not clear about our relationships to those around us, it is very stressful. Historically, humans lived in groups small enough that everyone knew and had a personal connection to every other person in the community. People shared food, tools, child care, everything and this provided strong incentive to not be a total jerk.
Modern North American (popular) culture beats us over the head with the IDEA that romantic love can only happen in a singular pair, forever and always. But just look at all the divorces, fractured families, unhappy unions, and infidelity. Clearly this is a system that goes against our nature. When we are taught that there is only one true love for life, well that is a LOT of pressure to make the right choice and you had better damn well never let anyone take that person away from you! But what if you and your partner where secure in knowing your role in each other’s lives, without fear that they would seek to REPLACE you or find someone BETTER? What if your lovability was not decided solely by one individual?
Sex at Dawn presents compelling evidence that, unlike our gorilla cousins, where males aggressively defend their sexual interests by closely guarding a harem and ousting male competition, we are most similar to bonobos, whose males and females have a lot of sexual variety (and not just for procreation). This keeps the members connected and outwardly peaceable, while the competition occurs at the sperm level (the fertilization competition is won by the objectively superior specimen from a larger pool of applicants).
As Bronson and Merryman state, competition is the foundation of democracy and the engine behind evolution/innovation.