The Need to Win (and not lose)
We have a deep need to win at whatever we do, and perhaps an even stronger need to avoid losing (at least appearing to lose).
The zero sum assumption
We are naturally programmed as a competitive species who will fight for our side against all competitors. In doing so, we are assuming a win-lose scenario. If we win, the other person loses, and vice versa. The natural strategy that flows from this is to fight tooth and nail to win.
There is another option: that it is not zero sum. When one person gains, the other does not necessarily have to lose. If you can create a win-win situation, then everyone can win.
The impact of losing
When we lose, this has a number of negative impacts on us:
- It is evidence that we are not winners, which may be a significant self-image.
- It shows that our prediction process is not good, making all other predictions possibly failures.
- Other people will see us as losers and give us less esteem or otherwise take advantage.
In Argyris’ Governing Values, the Model 1 approach indicates how people are driven to win, and especially to not lose. This is also reflected in Prospect Theory, which indicates how the prospect of loss can be more powerful a motivator than the prospect of gain, even though both drive the person towards winning.
Help the other person win. If they are competitive, frame it as the other person’s competitor losing (if necessary, find them someone or something to compete against). If they are friendly, frame it as a win-win situation.We have a significant social need to win, or at very least (and more importantly) not to lose.
Why You Need to Win
It may have its roots in that most basic human drive: survival. If you didn’t win against that saber-toothed tiger or neighboring tribe, you really lost. The saber-toothed tiger may be extinct, but those feelings haven’t gone away.
It Feels So Good
Your desire to win could be related to a chemical in your brain called dopamine, which is linked to pleasure. Besting your buddy on the golf course not only gives you bragging rights, it also triggers a good feeling in the reward area of your brain. And a study of male mice showed that their testosterone levels got progressively higher each time they won, which made them more likely to win future fights.
We Learn From It
Besides pleasant feelings, winning also gives you good info for the next round. And on the other side of the table, your competitor’s failures spark not only those reward signals in your brain, but learning signals as well.
Our democracy thrives on competition. The more hotly contested an election, the more interested and involved we are. But the outcome of a tight race puts a lot more people on the losing side.
The Great Debate
Debate is a part of life. Some researchers say we go back and forth with one another to learn and make better decisions. But one school of thought says we don’t do it to get smarter or end up with a perfect solution. We argue to bring people to our way of thinking: We argue to win.
Some Crave Competition
You know the type. “Well, he’s really competitive,” or “Wow, she’s out to win.” Many people who seem especially competitive are driven by that primal need to win, but there could be other reasons behind it. They might see it as a chance to get better at something by comparing themselves to others, or they might think the competition will make them work harder and, in turn, bring out their best.
Competitive Gender Gap
In general, studies show that women don’t like competition as much as men. It’s not that women are afraid of losing — the theory is that men are a bit overconfident. That difference may be a good thing, though. A study of 42 countries found that societies are less happy when both genders are highly competitive.
Winning Through Others
There’s a term for getting behind a winning team: “basking in reflected glory.” It means you get to enjoy a victory even though you may not have done anything but cheer: “We won, we won!” On the flip side, if your team doesn’t win, you don’t want any part of it: “Those bums lost again!”
The Bummer of Second Place
After the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, researchers found that athletes who finished third in an event — and earned bronze medals — were much happier than those who finished second and got silver. The silver medalists may have been let down because they thought they had a chance at winning gold, while bronze medalists were happy simply to make it onto the medal stand.
The Lengths We’ll Go
People who don’t do a task well are a lot more likely to cheat if there’s pressure to win. Whether it’s a card up your sleeve or copied sections of another’s term paper, it’s usually done for one of two reasons: to save face or to win no matter what.
The Downside of Winning
If you’re so wrapped up in a sport that you’re not happy with yourself unless you do well in it, that’s not healthy. Taking competition too far can make you not much fun to be around — you might be too aggressive, for example.
Too Much Winning
Researchers created what they called a hypercompetitive attitude scale (HCA) and found that extremely competitive people tend to be self-absorbed and not trusting, among other negative personality traits. If that sounds like a lot of people you know, that’s not surprising. They also reported that hypercompetitiveness is a part of American life.
When Parents Go Too Far
An obsession with winning often comes from parents. You know, the loud ones at your kid’s soccer games? Coaches say pushy parents are a major problem. A national survey of tennis coaches said 36% of parents actually hurt their kids’ athletic development.
A Little Perspective
A debate on the value of competition has raged for years, especially when it comes to kids. Competition and a desire to win can drive you to be more successful, but that only goes so far. An unhealthy need to win can affect your happiness, stress levels, and self-esteem. In one study, children who were told to do their best and look for new ways to do certain activities were more motivated than kids who were told they should try to do the activities better than the other kids.
Competition vs. Cooperation
It might be a good idea to steer children to work with others toward goals rather than against one another, according to some social scientists. Kids may feel better about themselves, and there’s no chance their self-esteem will be tied too closely to winning a spelling bee or a baseball game.
A Nod to the Non-Competitive
People who don’t worry much about winning may be better off. While competition may bring out the best in some of us — and winning certainly feels good — cooperation can help us communicate better, trust others more, and accept people who are different.
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Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 07, 2020
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