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When Competition Helps and Hurts Motivation

Whether competition motivates or de-motivates depends on gender and numbers.

How many times have you used competition to motivate your staff? Or had your boss use competition to motivate you? Does competition work? Is it really motivating? We take for granted that competition will motivate people to do stuff, and it can, but the research on competition shows that competition is only motivating with certain conditions.

Competition Motivates Men, But Not Women — Gneezy's research showed that boys and girls and men and women do not respond the same way to competition. Competition often increases performance for boys and men (as long as there aren’t too many competitors – see below), but it doesn’t always increase performance for girls and women. If women are competing against other women then there might be an improvement in performance, although it’s usually not large. And if women are competing against men then they often show no improvement in performance with a competition.

Fewer Competitors = More Competition  Did you take a standardized test like the SAT or ACT to get into college? How many people were in the room when you took the test? What does it matter? Research by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom Tor shows that it may matter a lot. Garcia and Tor first compared SAT scores for locations that had many people in the room taking the test versus locations that had smaller numbers. They adjusted the scores to control for the educational budget in that region and other factors. Students who took the SAT test in a room with fewer people scored higher. Garcia and Tor hypothesized that when there are only a few competitors, you (perhaps unconsciously) feel that you can come out on top, and so you try harder. And, the theory goes, when there are more people, it’s harder to assess where you stand and therefore you’re less motivated to try to come out on top. They called this the N effect, with N equaling number as in formulas.

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Competing against 10 competitors vs. competing against 100  Garcia and Tor decided to test their theory in the lab. They asked students to complete a short quiz, and told them to complete it as quickly and accurately as possible. They were told that the top 20 percent would receive $5. Group A was told that they were competing against 10 other students. Group B was told that they were competing against 100 other students. Participants in Group A completed the quiz significantly faster than those in Group B. The interesting thing is that there was no one actually in the room with them! They were just told that other people were taking the test.

What do you think? Does this research fit with your own experience?

Here's the research: 

Gneezy, U., M. Niederle, and A. Rustichini “Performance in competitive environments: Gender differences,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2003, p. 1049-1074.

Garcia, S.M. and Tor, A., "The N-Effect: More Competitors, Less Competition", Psychological Science, Vol. 20, pp. 871-877, 2009July 1, 2009.


Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.


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