On the biological, social, psychoanalytic and cultural theories of competition and the differences between competition, power and ambition
A lot has been written on the psychological aspects of competition and our need to survive and excel beyond our own set limits. Competition is also about power, about using our energies in a constructive manner so that certain goals are easily achieved. However unlike power which can have wider and political motives, competition is more appropriate for every aspect of our daily life. Power is more of an internal and deeper state of mind and competition is an act or motivation towards achieving a particular goal.
The need for power is deeply embedded in any personality and is more permanent and could be unhealthy, and a person who seeks power will never change whereas competition is a more temporary condition and the competitive needs of individuals are healthier although the close link between power and competition cannot be ruled out. Competition can be explained in many ways – with the Darwinian theory of evolution and the need for survival, the Freudian theory of sexuality and sexual needs as propelling competitive needs, although this could again be closely related to ambition. So power, ambition, competition would be certain closely related concepts and one overlaps the other but power is a stronger version with even a negative connotation to our desire for survival and proving our worth; ambition is a more positive version of this desire to survive and excel and competition is a common and more of an immediate desire as it is related to more specific events or achievements.
But I would categorize competition as event or immediate achievement oriented as the event or achievement is the main motivation to compete, power as desire oriented as it stems from a deeper desire to exercise control and ambition as goal or status oriented. I have talked about ambition extensively in another essay and will do so about power in another essay but in this article, I focus on the more psychological aspects of competition. Competition seems to affect every aspect of our life including academics and education, sports and athletics, and also work, career and wealth accumulation. Wealth, money and political ambitions could be however more about power than only about competition. Competition is a desire to excel, to achieve something for approval from friends and family and for improving one’s self confidence and self worth.
The Biological Explanation of Competition
The biological explanation of competition could be explained with evolutionary or even endocrinal perspectives as certain hormones in our body could make us more active and competitive. Competition could be explained with the theory of evolution and a phrase largely used to explain Darwin – the survival of the fittest. Darwin’s theory means that the species that are able to adapt to their own natural environment are successful because they have the inherent ability to survive. Thus competition is about adapting, mastering and as a result surviving in the environment around us. Whether it is work, play or study, competition is about mastery and the desire to even impose this mastery on the environment. In a competition, whether formal or informal, the focus is on learning the ways of the environment and controlling them in a way that could be most beneficial for an individual. The final motive is to gain something by adapting to the environment and this gain could be explained later with a social theory of competition. The Darwinian theory however could be used to highlight less of the effects of competition and focus more on the process of competition and how goals are attained. This could be very well related to an evolutionary theory of psychology in which the Darwinian ideas are used to explain psychological concepts. However struggles in Darwinism could have wider connotations and in Darwin’s philosophy competition and cooperation could also merge. This would be specifically true if competition is considered as an attempt to adapt to society and to its rules and challenges and then competing is participating and participation is also cooperation.
The Psychoanalytic Explanation of Competition
Competition could be explained with the theory of sexuality in which Freud identifies sexual needs and basic sexual or libidinal urges as responsible for our need to achieve and prove ourselves. Sexual energy drives and motivates people to achieve the goals in life and competition could well be explained with these libidinal energies that continually motivate people to excel or achieve their life goals. However according to the Freudian theory there has to be a certain balance of the id and ego guided by pleasure principles and reality for better achievement of one’s goals.
Competition according to psychoanalysis would be about finding a balance between id and ego and achieving life goals using constructive energies. Competition is just not about fulfilling personal pleasure but also about regulation and control of pleasures in the direction of socially acceptable achievements.
The Cultural Explanation of Competition
The anthropological or cultural theory of competition suggests that competition may or may not be acceptable within certain cultures. Some primitive cultures valued cooperation as we have learnt in case of group behavior in primitive societies, where hunting and such activities were done in groups. However competition has been found in inter-group or even inter-racial struggles as could be seen from numerous examples in history. Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1937), discussed cooperation and competition among primitive peoples and examined competition in terms of culture or that competition may or may not be appreciated by a particular culture and culture could be defined in terms of how society accepts it.
The Social Explanation of Competition
In our modern urban society, competition is considered positive and in fact necessary to survive and prove one’s worth. Developing a competitive spirit is considered as essential in achieving life goals and competitiveness has direct relevance with one’s social standing as winning in competition gives a sense of self worth, a sense of gain and helps in securing approval from immediate friends and society at large. The social theory of competition would highlight the value of competing and winning whether at work or play and competition is thus seen as positive in modern urban culture and this is true for urban cultures across the world. Competition is socially accepted and also participation in competition increases social acceptability of an individual. As social approval is essential to our survival and emotional well being, competition has a social relevance and value and is thus also has evolutionary advantage.
The biological explanation of competition could be explained with evolutionary or even endocrinal perspectives as suggested and could even explain excessive competitiveness in certain individuals. The psychoanalytic explanation would also be equally important as the balance between the id and ego and proper channeling of libidinal urges help in achieving goals via the competition. The need for competition thus arises not just from biological but also psychological causes. The cultural and social explanations of competition highlight why competition is socially and culturally accepted although the acceptability of competition may vary between societies. Although cooperation and competition are seemingly opposite concepts, competition could be considered as simply an extension of cooperation and the two are interdependent.