Alfie Kohn

The Case Against Competition

VTR Date: October 12, 1986

Alfie Kohn discusses his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition.


GUEST: Mr. Alfie Kohn
VTR: 10/12/1986

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. `And for more just argument sake, indeed, for the sake of the next half hour, I’d like you to consider the following proposition. “Life for us has become an endless succession of contests. From the moment the alarm clock rings until sleep overtakes us again, from the time we are toddlers until the day we die, we are busy struggling to outdo others. This is our posture at work, and at school, on the playing field, and back at home. It is the common denominator of American life.” True or false? True, of course. Good or bad? Well, that’s what I want to discuss today with Alfie Kohn, the author of Haughton Mifflin’s new book, No Contest: the Case Against Competition. Mr. Kohn begins his book with the paragraph I read and goes on, with no holds barred, to describe, as he notes, why we lose in our race to win. Indeed, what I suspect must always be the fiercest competition of them all for the minds of men, Mr. Kohn is no slouch himself. I even watched him on the Phil Donahue show, recently, trying to win his point, which he states so well in No Contest. Let me just read another paragraph. “Thus, is that Vince Lombardi’s famous comment, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,’ must be understood not merely as the expression of one football coach’s fanaticism, but as a capsule description of our entire culture. Our lives are not merely affected by, but structure upon the need to be better than. We seem to have reached a point where doing our jobs, educating our children, and even relaxing on the weekends have to take place in the context of a struggle where some must lose. That there might be other ways to do these things is hard for us to imagine, or rather, it would be hard if we were sufficiently reflective about our competitiveness to think about alternatives in the first place. Mostly we just accept it as the way life is.” Mr. Kohn, isn’t life that way?

Kohn: Well, life in this culture certainly is that way. From our earliest days, we are trained not only to compete but to believe in competition; to believe it’s necessary for productivity, to believe it’s necessary for productivity, to believe that it builds character, and even to our nature. Life itself doesn’t have to be that way. We may be driven innately to achieve, to prosper, to survive, but those don’t have to be construed as activities we do against other people; trying to beat them. That is a cultural prejudice and I know of no other culture which drives the point home in such an exaggerated fashion as our own.

Heffner: but if you are a cultural determinist, and you seem to be, aren’t you spitting against the wind in writing the book and looking at this as the case against competition? How can you possibly establish that case in a culture that functions as you say ours does?

Kohn: Well, I would not describe myself as a cultural determinist. I would suggest that we learn lessons like competition and cooperation, rather than having that be a part of our genetic code, for example. There is no evidence for the latter proposition. But I think that all institutions in a given culture can be changed. It was only a generation ago I think that we faced what seemed to be an insurmountable barrier toward equality of opportunity for all racism…for all races, rather. Racism seemed to be something that was not only part of our attitudes and personal psychology, but also built into the structures and institutional fabric of the American culture. Slowly we have begun to make progress there and I argue, we can do the same thing with competition. The first step is to understand that what we have been led to believe about competition is false. It is, in fact, counter-productive in the workplace, in the classroom. It is psychologically destructive rather than constructive and it poisons our relationships. If those things are true – if it’s undesirable it’s unnecessary, then I think we can begin to make those changes in all areas where it poisons us.

Heffner: You say, “undesirable and unnecessary”, but haven’t we decided as a people…hasn’t our culture decided…isn’t it built upon the notion that in terms of economics, it is desirable and it is necessary?

Kohn: I think in economics…as for example, in the classroom, we are certainly very competitive and I’m not sure who the ‘we’ is. I always get a little…

Heffner: Should we say “they”?

Kohn: Well, I mean, there’s a problem, whether it’s first person or third person, about reifying – treating the culture as if it is a single thing, an entity over which we can have no control. Maybe that, in fact, defines a cultural determinist and that’s why I don’t put myself in that camp. We can begin to question the assumptions on which competition is based. We are led to believe that people would not be moved to work at all to reach excellence unless they are trying to make other people into losers. The evidence suggests otherwise. We are led to believe that it makes people feel more confident about themselves – that it builds character or enhances self esteem. Again, the research actually shows us that that’s quite wrong. So if we have the capability for re-evaluating our behaviors and our attitudes, then we ought to look at what the data actually show and then we can begin to make changes as parents, as teachers, as managers, as workers.

Heffner: Yes, but what puzzles me, and I’m not arguing the point with you but I am truly curious about this, you seem to take the school room…you take the classroom, you take schools and say, we can make this change. Do you feel the same about competition in the marketplace where indeed it would seem, in a period certainly of limited resources, that if I win in my competition with you, you will lose? Isn’t that the basic assumption? And if it is, can it be set aside?

Kohn: It is the basic assumption of this economic system, yes. I cannot imagine the American economic system, as currently defined, devoid of competition. If we take the lessons about competition and how unproductive it turns out to be to their logical conclusion, I think it requires some radical rethinking about an economic system. The question is then, do we best produce and distribute resources…and by best I mean not only most productively, but most equitably…by having people try to defeat one another? This is…No Contest is not primarily a book about economics, but if you look at the research within the individual workplace and the classroom and see where that evidence seems to lead, I think there is reason to ask some hard questions. To suggest…the problem may not be simply with an unfair economy…kind of competition, but with competition itself and I think we need to move toward devising probably small scale decentralized cooperative alternatives there – as in the classroom and on the playing field and in the family.

Heffner: But you say…you see, you say that your book, which I think is an excellent book and makes extraordinary reading too…I told you before we went on the air that I would compare it with Richard Hofstadter’s superb book on social Darwinism in America. But you say, “Let me also acknowledge that this discussion intended to raise questions about the fundamental bases of our current economic system,” and you make the concession, that the book is designed, in part, to raise these questions, does not include a consideration of alternatives. And that’s rather difficult for a reader to deal with, for one who would like to accept the notion that one can move to a lessened or noon-competitive system, when you yourself say you have no alternatives to the concept or to the working out of competition in the marketplace.

Kohn: I don’t think I explicitly say I have no alternatives. I go on, I think, in the next sentence or two, to mention, all be it briefly, cooperatives in the way that they could work in the smaller scale economic system, along the lines of perhaps Israel, cooperative…I belong to a food cooperative, for example, and live in a cooperative household. But you are quite right, I only point to those in a very cursory manner. And perhaps the reader will be frustrated in that sense – I hope in a good sense.

Heffner: What do you mean in a good sense

Kohn: That the reader will be moved to want more and perhaps to move him or herself to join with others to devise those alternatives. I think I may be forgiven for not laying out a blueprint for a new society if I’ve succeeded in showing that the reasons bolstering our current competitive system are in fact fallacious. If that’s true, then let’s get on together with the next step of the project, which is to devise alternatives.

Heffner: But of course, you’re making an assumption that the cause and effect work in one way and one might make the assumption otherwise. You’re say9ing, if we can remove the competitive “I win, therefore you lose”, or “You lose, therefore I win” notion in the classroom and in many other areas of our lives, we’ll then be able to move on to the marketplace, to the economic field. But doesn’t it seem to be true that we Americans have basically moved in the other direction? We’ve taken the competitiveness of our economic system and imposed the notion of competitiveness upon our sports, upon our leisure, upon our schools, upon our family life.

Kohn: Well, there I think it’s certainly true that the causal arrow moves in both directions, or rather many directions. Each competitive institution of our society, I think, reinforces each other. One could argue on the one hand that a competitive economic system Is the basis, the model, the prototype, if you will, for the competition that we undergo even on the weekend when we’re supposed to be relaxing and having a good time, or for that matter, that the disease of competition, as I put it, is taken home; it is like a bug in the office that somebody brings home and there it is, infecting us in our living rooms and our bedrooms as well, where even there, love becomes a kind of trophy – the race for affections becomes a terrible alternative to the family as a refuge from those terrible competitive pressures at work. On the other hand, many have argued that a child learns in the family, the lessons that “I can succeed only if you fail”, which seems to me the kernel, the nub of what it means to compete. And then we go out and transfer that to the public sector, the private sector that is, what is outside the home. Those arrows move in all directions and for that reason, I think, we’re going to have to be moving on several fronts simultaneously to transcend the competitiveness of this culture. What I would emphasize though is that in all of those different arenas – at home, at school, at play, at work – we’re going to have to be talking about reconfiguring the institutions, the structures, as opposed to simply transforming the individual consciousness. Many other critics of competition have said that all we have to do is stop caring who wins. Certainly, continue to play competitive games but don’t try to make the other person lose, or become part of some kind of competitive grading system in the classroom, but don’t get carried away with it. That, I think, is where the real problem lies, not merely one arena versus another, but the notion of the structure versus the individual. Our attitudes are formed, they’re modeled, not merely informed, by the structures that point us in certain directions. To say to somebody…to a child, for example, “Don’t care who wins”, while playing a competitive game, I think is naïve at best, and probably hypocritical at worst. What we’ve got to do is devise ways in which we can enjoy ourselves on the playing field, as well as learn in the classroom and work in the workplace so that we are working with other people rather than against them. And when I talk of cooperation, let me add, I am not talking about some kind of pie in the sky, utopian ideal. I am talking of a shrewd and productive strategy that has been tested. To take the classroom, for example, if you put a bunch of kids together and say that they’re going to be graded on the basis of the group performance, you have built in an incentive for each child to want every other one to succeed and to help each other. And the research is absolutely clear – when that happens, kids work better, they learn better, they retain the lessons, they like the subject matter and they like each other more than when it becomes a kind of mock battle, which is the major, the dominant model of education in this country now.

Heffner: Yes, but you say, and I’m fascinated…in No Contest you make it quite clear that you will have no truck with the liberal who says, “Well, let’s just modify this a little bit.” You don’t like that person because may co-opt, if I understand correctly, the potential for going all the way. You say that…you just said that it’s naïve and hypocritical. How naïve or hypocritical would it be for you to say that you think we will make the changes that you advocate?

Kohn: I don’t have a crystal ball. I think that the prediction that none of this could possibly come true, that we could not move beyond competition because it’s part of our culture and that’s the way life is, tends to be…a very powerful statement really. It tends to be a profoundly conservative notion that I think masquerades as realism. If we all get together and say, with shrugged shoulders, “There’s nothing you can do, we’re competitive and that’s the end of it, so you might as well raise another generation on this poison so they’ll fit in.” if you say nothing can change, that’s exactly what will happen.

Heffner: Suppose we don’t say that. Suppose I say, “Look, nobody’s listening, nobody was watching, just between the two of us – what do you really think will happen? Nobody’s saying it shouldn’t change, it couldn’t change. It could, it should, it must, but will it? Just between the two of us.

Kohn: Just between the two of us and however many hundreds of thousands of people are listening as well, I think we can say that there is a prospect for change. I am…I do not believe that we are going to be a non-competitive society by next week, and nothing that I’ve written or say here should be construed to mean that. Do I believe that we can move our classrooms to be cooperative? Do I believe that we can search for cooperative or non-competitive games for our children and ourselves? Do I believe that we can make individual workplaces cooperative? Absolutely. Those are sort of the first stages, I think. And then once that happens and we have children growing up to think of each other as potential collaborators, rather than as rivals, rather than as obstacles to their own success – which I think is the tacit lesson of our classrooms and playing fields now – then we can move to the next stage of thinking about political and economic alternatives. So I don’t see myself as starry-eyed and unrealistic in predicting that this all can happen with a snap of our fingers.

Heffner: Yes, yet you’ve used the word “can” a number of times. That really isn’t what I was asking. Of course we can. The question that I’m asking you, to the best of your ability, you’re not a prophet, you have no crystal ball, but to the best of your ability, s a historian, a sociologist, and you are all of these things, will that change take place? Because if your answer is no, don’t you have an obligation to look for somewhat different formulations and perhaps an obligation even to embrace those damn liberals who are constantly co-opting by saying let’s go half way?

Kohn: Right, right. Well, I…uhm, in the last chapter of No Contest I…I do not reject the liberal alternative entirely. I talk…I distinguish in the book between structural competition and arrangement that requires us to succeed at the price of someone’s failure – an intentional competition, by which I mean a personal desire to be Number 1. And I think we have…the structural kind is the more important and that’s the one that will require the more difficult changes, the ones of transforming our institutions. The liberals, so called, are the ones who talk more about changing your mind set personally and not caring. And I say that certainly we have to do that as well. So I don’t throw out the sort of reformist mentality entirely. Some fine tuning within the current structure I think is necessary and I’ll give you a personal example. An excerpt from my book appeared in Psychology Today in September, which concentrated on the workplace and the classroom and just the evidence of how competition is counter-productive – I got requests for reprints from IBM, Westinghouse, and even the Army there. I was of two minds about that, frankly. I mean, on the one hand, the part of me that said, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” said let us put cooperation into practice on whatever level and whatever scale is heartened by the interest. On the other hand, and this is the part you’ve been addressing so far in this program, I have misgivings about that because certainly my role is not as a corporate consultant to train one corporation to succeed at the price of another one.

Heffner: Well, that is the point through, isn’t it? That this is a way of succeeding, of knowing what the wave of the future may be.

Kohn: Yes, but I guess I resist your question not because I think the answer is pessimistic or unhappy, but because I think those sort of questions of simply predicting what will happen are not terribly useful. What we can do and should do, I think, are the two more relevant queries here. If competition is something we can change and ought to change, then will follows from that and it’s not merely in my role as a cheerleader to try to set an auspicious circle rather than a vicious circle into motion, but because I believe it is difficult to know – things change. I don’t’ se society, and I’m sure you as an historian don’t either, as simply a pendulum moving between two alternatives, back and forth. I think for those who oppose competition and those who favor equity, even in the economic realm alone, I find these troublesome times, when public officials are urged to simply become cheerleaders for private industry. I’m not convinced that we are moving down some road from which there is no recovery. If you had asked me thirty years ago – had I been in a position to answer the question, which I wasn’t – to predict whether woman would be in the public sector to the extent they are now, that the New York Times would be using Ms., and that we would have different ways of thinking about women and men in our society, neither I nor I think anyone else could have predicted it will happen.

Heffner: What an incredibly ameliorative thing to say – I mean, to use something like that, as a sign of…of…how possible or likely it is that…I…I frequently refer to the fact that on this program, many, many, many years ago, Max Lerner…we were talking about that point at which Franklin Roosevelt, was a press conference, was asked by a young cub reporter, was he a socialist? No. well, was he this? No. was he that? No. well, what are you, Mr. President? And he gave an answer that was very, very general. He said I’m a democrat and a Christian. And he was referring to the Judaic/Christian tradition and he was referring to democrat with a small “d”. And I asked Max what he would have said and Max Lerner said, “I’m a possibilist”. And I think that is what you are…what you are saying, but you use examples – Ms., the role of women today – as if those changes conform at all to that incredibly fundamental what-kind-of-people-are-we or what-are-we arena that you address yourself to. When you write about playing the human nature chord, I don’t think that women suffered as they did because of…so much because of what we said about human nature. I think it had to do with many other things.

Kohn: I’m not sure I agree with you there. I mean, I…

Heffner: …you think it’s fundamental?

Kohn: There are two versions of the human nature argument, the way this…and I always put it in quotes because I’m always suspicious of it and the evidence rarely confirms the people who casually say, “That’s just human nature.” One version of it is to say that differences among certain humans are innate and built in. and there I think you found a number of people, and still do, talking about innate differences and cognitive capacities in orientation towards children versus work, and so on, between men and women, or for that matter between blacks and whites, between western world and eastern world. And the second version of the western world and eastern world. And the second version of the human nature argument is the one that I’m concerned with and that is that a given characteristic or feature is in fact built in and unavoidable. Those, by the way, tend to be the…the unsavory elements of our lives here. You know, we are competitive or aggressive or greedy or stubborn or territorial as a matter of human nature. In both cases the human nature argument is played in order to frustrate change. It certainly has that consequence, even if it doesn’t always have that conscious intention. In four years of researching this subject for No Contest, I have yet to find a shred of evidence to suggest that we are competitive because we’re born that way. The evidence suggests we are trained that way and what is learned can be unlearned.

Heffner: Is there anything beyond nurture in your estimation?

Kohn: Oh certainly.

Heffner: What? If we play the human nature chord now…how do we play it, what do we see? What’s the hand that’s played?

Kohn: Well, which characteristics are built into human…?

Heffner: Yeah. Yeah.

Kohn: Well, psychologists and biologists differ on this, I think. I think there tends to be a startle response, for example, a desire for belongingness, certainly to have physical needs met. This seems to be built in. I think some kind of love, approval or acceptance, however that’s construed, is something that we’re born with. But in order to make a clear-cut statement that this is human nature, I think we’d necessarily have to talk in such general terms lest we forget about a culture in which it exists in a very different form, that the whole argument becomes not terribly useful. That’s why I think we can spend…even in the case of say aggression…you know, it’s not as simple as going out and researching a given culture and…or looking at the anthropological evidence and saying, I see it all over the place, it’s universal, therefore it’s inevitable. The burden of proof, and this is the most important point I think, is on anyone who claims that something is part of human nature – to show that it is unavoidable, it always has been, it always will be and it exists in all cultures – and there certainly is no evidence to that affect, I think with competition.

Heffner: but don’t…don’t you start as everyone who puts pen to paper starts with some concepts, some notion of what the nature of human nature is, even if you’re going to presume a kind of universal tabula rasa?

Kohn: Well, I suppose you could define that as a kind of…it is in human nature to have no human nature. It is certainly within our nature…I want to turn this back to the question of competition about which I feel I have somewhat more expertise than human nature in general…it is certainly within our nature, within our capability to be competitive, as it is to be cooperative, as it is to be generous, as it is to be selfish. The question then becomes – if we have that range of potential, which is the most desirable way to go? Which makes more sense for us as individuals and as a society? What I argue here is that it turns out to be counterproductive that excellence and victory are not only theoretically different, but practically often pull in different directions. To do well is not to be focused on doing better than others. And I also argue that it is, in fact, psychologically disastrous. So far from building character, competition makes us fearful of losing and never satisfied with winning and we become addicted to competition, needing to prove again and again that we’re valuable people because we have beaten others. That’s like drinking salt water to quench a thirst. And finally that it poisons our relationships with each other.

Heffner: But I’m sure, and we have a half a minute left, I’m sure there are many people who still want to relate this to the question of economic success, nationally as well as personally.

Kohn: Uhm. Within our culture right now, competition in most sectors seems to be necessary, but I refuse to take that given as a forever given, but rather to talk about how we can reach a less competitive, more healthy and more productive alternative in economics as elsewhere. I think it can be done. Not much thinking about it has been done so far. It is not as if non-competitive alternatives have been considered and rejected. In this country I don’t think they’ve been considered seriously at all.

Heffner: Mr. Kohn, in that great competition that does go on, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

Kohn: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence M Wein; Pfizer, Inc.; and the New York Times Company Foundation.