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The competition contagion

Does the mere presence of a competition change the behaviour of individuals, even when not officially competing? New research suggests the ‘competition contagion’ could have wide reaching implications for how we view competitive behaviour and motivation.

chalkboard drawing of some men climbing a ladder. The drawing shows a flat field where multiple ladders are stacked up towards the sky. The men are outlined in white. The red ladder is the tallest. The other ladders are white. There are two clouds above the ladders.

by Dr Vincent Mak, Reader in Marketing & Decision Sciences at Cambridge Judge Business School

Dr Vincent Mak

Dr Vincent Mak

Does your competitive spirit encourage you to grab every opportunity to win? Or do you steer away from competition, letting others fight it out? It turns out that it may not matter; the contagion of competitive spirit means that your behaviour may be influenced anyway.

It is understood that competitive behaviour is a manifestation of social comparison; the tendency to self-evaluate by comparing yourself to others. Research carried out to date has focused on the human behaviour behind social comparison, and has focused on groups and social situations that are knowingly in competition. But what happens when we look at the impact competitions have on non-competitors – people who are not participating in the competition but are aware of it? It is feasible that the mere presence of the competition, whether in a social or professional context, will have an impact on behaviour and elicit similar ‘heightened social comparison’ motivation.

To test this theory, we carried out a controlled field experiment involving a German zoo. During the period of the experiment, all customers at the zoo were allowed to pay whatever they wanted for entrance. Some customers were in addition asked to opt in or opt out of a competition, in which the customer who paid the highest entrance fee among the competitors could win a prize.The study found that pay-what-you-want customers who were aware of this competition but did not participate in it paid a higher entrance fee, compared to other pay-what-you-want customers who were unaware of the competition.

The study demonstrated that customers who were aware of the competition but opted not to participate in it, were influenced by the very existence of the competition and subsequently paid a higher price.

By understanding that the mere presence of a competition has an impact on behaviour beyond those that are competing, we can start to think differently about how we approach and think about competition in both a social and professional context.

Consider a business organisation in which two senior partners vie for the role of the managing partner. It is pertinent for the firm’s board of directors to promote the senior partner with better performance. It would then be natural to expect that the two senior partners, when told they are in consideration for the promotion, would respond competitively with improved effort and performance at work. By applying the thinking behind the ‘competition contagion’, we can then deduct that staff, who are aware of a competition for promotion but are not in the running for the position, will work harder and increase output as a result.

By widening the lens of this theory, we can also start to consider how this effect might influence group behavioural change when it comes to public policy. For example, would greater consideration of the ‘competition contagion’ be relevant when thinking about how we nudge people in to more responsible behaviour patterns around recycling or use of the emergency services for example?

By recognising the effect of the ‘competition contagion’ we can subsequently consider two key points when thinking about competition and behaviour change. It is important to recognise that non-competitors can be an important consideration, whether you are looking at a fundraising event, a company’s revenue or labour force, a team’s strength or weakness, or a classroom’s prosperity or decline. Just because an individual does not take part in a competition does not mean they are unaffected by the social comparison dynamics created by it.

It also gives us additional understanding and perspective when it comes to designing and communicating the competitive environments in our social and professional lives. From our research we now understand that the influence of a competition goes way beyond those who put themselves forward for the race.