No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn (1986)

In his view, competition is a negative concept that undermines individual growth and development, as well as human relationships.

The damaging quality of competition lies in the fundamental fact that competition involves the success of an individual and the concomitant failure of another.  Kohn (1986) coins the term “mutually exclusive goal attainment” to explain how competition allows only one party to attain the goal at the expense of others.

According to Kohn (1986), the high valuation of competition in this society is based on four myths. One of the commonly quoted phrases, “survival of the fittest,” as derived from Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has been misinterpreted to mean that only the strongest will triumph over others in the perpetual struggle among various members of the species. In actuality, this phrase refers to the community’s concern for the generation of surviving offspring that will in turn reproduce to maintain the existence of the species. Therefore, instead of celebrating competition and struggle, Darwin highlights the need for different members of the community cooperate with one another in order to ensure the survival of the species.
The second myth is the belief that competition builds character. In Kohn’s (1986) opinion, only people with low self-esteem requires winning in competitions to bolster their insecurity about their abilities. Essentially, people with high esteem do not feel the need to prove themselves by winning in competitions and beating others.

Kohn (1986) cites research
studies to show that cooperative learning leads to higher levels of self-esteem than competitive settings. Competitive situations can be detrimental to the development of self-esteem because they depend on the triumph of one individual (feeding their false sense of superiority) and the humiliation of the “loser.”
Kohn (1986) also attacks the myth that competition is fun. Although the original concept of play emphasizes process before outcome, it has become lost in the competitive nature of many games and sports in contemporary society.

As they grow older, American children have lost their natural and spontaneous love of playing. Instead, they have forgotten how to enjoy the game with their focus on winning. Kohn (1986) cites an interesting study in which four- and five-year olds cooperate with one another in order to win a chess game. In contrast, their older counterparts sought to beat the opposing players.

Finally, the myth that competition increases productivity is also debunked in this book. In his meta-analysis of 122 studies on this topic, Kohn (1986) found that 65 studies showed that cooperation led to higher levels of achievement than competition while 36 studies did not indicate any statistical difference.

With his discussion, Kohn (1986) has illuminated the fallacies of competition. Nonetheless, the transformation of societal perceptions about competition will be a great challenge. Our belief in the benefits of competition has permeated our consciousness. Its assumptions and practices have become an entrenched part of our education, our business and politics. In order for our society to flourish in the future, it is vital for our contemporary society to eradicate this misguided perspective.