Do we compete more against fewer competitors?

This caught my eye:

If you’ve ever had to take a test in a room with a lot of people, you may be able to relate to this study: The more people you’re competing against, it turns out, the less motivated and competitive you are. Psychologists observed this pattern across several different situations. Students taking standardized tests in more crowded venues got lower scores. Students asked to complete a short general-knowledge test as fast as possible to win a prize if they were in the fastest 20 percent completed it faster if they were told that they were competing against 10 people rather than 100. Students asked how fast they would run in a race for a $1,000 prize if they finished in the top 10 percent said they would run faster in a race against 50 people rather than 500. Similarly, students contemplating a job interview or Facebook-friending contest said they would be less competitive if they expected more competitors – even if "winning" only required finishing in the top 20 percent. The authors conclude that competitiveness was curtailed because the larger the group, the more difficult it is to compare oneself directly to others.

The original paper is here, but note that context effects may well give you varying results in other settings.  The initial article, from the Boston Globe, discusses several other social science mechanisms of interest, although I was not surprised to learn that your dog relaxes you.

Addendum: Here is my earlier article on invisible competition.


This is definitely true for me, in my undergraduate classes.

I'd offer an alternate hypothesis for this phenomenon: That in smaller groups, we care more about our relative rank than in larger, more-depersonalized groups. And "depersonalization" may occur only by knowing the size of the group within which you're competing - being ranked 9/10 might be considered worse than 90/100th, for example. This would be relatively easy to test.

It all comes back to incentives in my mind. If a test is curved, then I'm definitely going to want to outperform all my competitors in the lecture hall during the exam, but if it's not scaled, then I want to to only take on the marginal costs necessary for the % I want on the exam.

Maybe there's even some sort of Nash Equilibria junk related (I'm admittedly a 2nd year undergrad and know nothing of game theory) on how students during a curved exam compared to when on an unscaled test they have a certain score or % they wish to attain and know the abstract costs involved.

Why didn't the authors conclude people compete less intensely because it's less likely you'll win in a larger group? Larger samples mean less delta between the sample and population distributions, so regardless of your absolute skill level (assuming the contest is skill-based in some way, and you are not near the extreme high end) as the number of competitors goes up, the probability you will be able to rank in a given percentile goes down.

"your dog relaxes you" yeah, but what about him ?

I agree with Michael and Brian, but would argue that it works the other way, too. If I know that I'm in the 90th percentile, I can just go through the motions in a large group and know I'll get a prize. But in a small group, there might be a couple of geniuses in there, and I may lose if I don't work as hard.

50% of the people have absolutely no idea what you are talking about when you tell them "they need to beat 20% of the people."...percentages completely baffle them, thus they ignorantly say they will try harder if there are fewer in the test population.

Is it reasonable to imagine that being able to better personify and quantify your competition makes you more determined to beat it?

My company has only two real competitors; GE and Dresser Rand. When we are not dwelling on the fact that GE could eat us with their petty cash, we work harder to beat them in X statistic. (profitability, quality of machine, outbid on a certain project...) if we had more than 2 competitors, it would be harder to get worked up about things. This is why propaganda reduces complex issues to a few salient (and usually insufficient) points. It is easier to motivate people when they have a definite objective or enemy.

This probably has nothing at all to do with the post, but I did find to my surprise in law school that the bigger the class, the better I did. I regularly got the highest grade in classes up to 150, but in classes of 5-15 I did absolutely terribly (relatively speaking- about 1 point of GPA lower). Very puzzling. Well, the classes probably were qualitatively different, but even so.

i find it immeasureably easier to get into the top 700 of a 3500-person poker tournament than the top 2 of a 10 person table as there are many more stupid people willing to give me their chips while i avoid those better than me

Check out contest and tournament theory in labor economics.

@Bob Tollison:

Right, I was just going to say that. How is this different from the result one gets in rank-order tournaments, where people will provide much less effort if they expect to be far from the cutoff? This doesn't strike me as a really new finding...

Why must we rely on others to determne our own personal success? Why cant people single themselves out of the crowd and act as if they are the only people there? This may sound somewhat delusional and emotionless, but it really works. I earned good grades throughout my first few semesters in college by maintaining that train of thought. Everyone becomes sort of insignificant in your determining of future actions. Its all about the self and discipline. Its the same kind of feeling you get when someone challenges you at something youre realy really good at and you know youre gonna win. That same feeling must occur without having that external challenge. Nothing should stop you.

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