Here are my thoughts on what competition and cooperation (something I would like to discuss as well; particularly, as an alternative to competition) are.
Coakley (2004) suggests that competition is “A social process that occurs when rewards are given to people for how their performance compares with the performances of others during the same task or when participating in the same event.” This involves an outcome (competitive) goal orientation of comparing performance to others and defeating them. On the other hand, cooperation can be defined as “A social process through which performance is evaluated and rewarded in terms of the collective achievement of a group of people working together to reach a particular goal” (Coakley, 2004). Similarly, Johnson and Johnson (2000) suggest that “Cooperative learning exists when students work together to accomplish shared learning goals.” In summary, these definitions suggest that cooperation involves individuals helping each other towards a common goal, and receiving a shared reward for their efforts.
Kohn further separates competition into structural and intentional competition.
Structural competition has to do with your environment. It means you are in a situation, where your success, by necessity, means someone else’s failure. For instance, in order to win a tennis match, by necessity, someone else must lose. In other places, such as college admissions, or job applications, your acceptance, decreases the probability of another being excepted. Kohn refers to this as mutually exclusive goal attainment (MEGA). Which means, your success requires someone else’s failure.
Intentional competition has do with the persons goal orientation. Someone can be competitive, even in non competitive situations. For example, always trying to out do others, or win a contest, or show you are the “top dog” in a given situation.
To distinguish, you could be in a structural competitive situation, such as a tennis match, but you have a mastery orientation, and are just concerned with your own performance. Nonetheless, your success, translates into someone else’s failure. So though you do not have intentional competition here, you do have structural competition.
Two other distinguishments are intergroup and intragroup competition.
Intergroup competition are two teams competing against each other. This is wide spread in sport such as basketball, and baseball.
Intragroup is competing against people in your own group. For example, at a job, you are competing to see who can sell the most items.
Also, there is a difference between social comparison and competition.
You can compare yourself to someone without trying to defeat or be better than that person (competition). For instance, you can read shakespear, and try to elmulate him, and improve your writing style, using his source as a source of motivation, rather than trying to be better than shakespear. John Harvey summarizes this, “It is one thing to act from a desire to excel somebody else at something (competition). It is quite another to act with a view to getting something done…and ye to be stimulated in the acivity by a parallel or contrasted activity of others.”
Also, if you are trying to beat a record time, that is not necessarily a competition. You can set up a standard for your won personal excellence, and try to attain it, without having the goal of wanting to defeat someone. So I can see that the mean time in my class for running a mile is 9 minutes, and my mile time is 11 minutes. And say, hmmm, that seems like a good improvement to make. And then, I take a mastery goal, and try to run a mile in less than 9 minutes. But I did not have to have in mind defeating others. I just used that comparison to see where I was.
Now, as you stated, some say, “I am only competing against myself” Kohn says this is not competition. Competition, essentially, involves others losing. This is the heart of the problem of competition.
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If the desire to better oneself can be deemed "competition" then I feel that the competitive nature is innate in all of us.
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So no, I would not say that focusing on your own performance is competition.
However, you are right, based on my research. Humans are inherently motivated for self improvement.
I discuss this a lot here, The Effects of External Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation.
Intrinsic motivation can be defined as an individuals need to feel self determination, competency, and pride in something (McCullagh, 2005). Therefore, athletes who are intrinsically motivated participate in sports for no apparent reward other than the satisfaction and pleasure they get from the activity itself (Deci, 1971). Extrinsic Motivation can be defined as performance of an activity in order to attain some separate outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000, a). Therefore, athletes that are extrinsically motivated participate in sports for external causes such as rewards, positive feedback, recognition, etc.; rather than for the inherent satisfaction of performing the activity itself (intrinsic motivation).
Self Determination theory suggests that humans have three central psychological needs, which are relatedness, effectance, and autonomy. Deci & Ryan (1994) summarize these needs in the following quote: “people are inherently motivated to feel connected to others within a social milieu (relatedness), to function effectively in that milieu (effectance), and to feel a sense of personal initiative in doing so (autonomy)” (p.7). Notice the term “inherently”. This theory suggests that humans have an innate tendency to develop these needs. Nevertheless, these needs do not develop automatically; they must be furnished by the environment, which can either promote growth, or impede it.
There is a ton of evidence backing this. Again, I show a lot of this evidence in my article.
Let me know your guys thoughts on this. I am definitely not giving a yes or no answer here. I am trying to sharpen my understanding of the topic.