|No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn (1986)
Reviewed by Kah Ying Choo
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
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
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
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
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.
Kohn, A. (1986). No contest: The
case against competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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