Winning is everything. Good guys finish last. May the best team win. Champions are built on teamwork. These are some of the proverbs that reflect the universal tension between behaving as an individual to get ahead and blending into a group to get ahead. In the following, I examine the opposition between competition and cooperation as one example of the oppositions that we confront in our psychology, and how we can deal with them by working toward their integration.

Both strategies have their benefits, and we have to learn to combine them into a blended strategy of adaptation. Competition and cooperation work best when they fight least, that is, for a place in our mental space. 


The roots of competition and cooperation are in our biological heritage. In one sense, Darwin conceived of evolution as involving survival and reproduction by means of winning competitions. However, scientists today are also focusing on group processes in human behavior, such as taking the perspective of the other person, altruism, sharing, and working for the common good.

Moreover, life is not just about winning. The goal should not to be on top in everything that we try to do. Rather, it should be to ensure that the foundations of wherever we find ourselves in our work and in our personal lives remain on solid ground.

No matter what the competition, we need to respect the other competitors and other people in our lives. For work, this refers to co-workers who are in lesser positions of authority. For our personal lives, this means communicating with sensitivity to our loved ones, partners, children, parents, siblings, and so on. When we look at life as cooperation as much as competition, and try to blend the two, the balance that we reach might be more manageable and fruitful in the long term.

When winning dominates your psychology, the prizes that you obtain might be fleeting and empty. However, when your goal is to keep competition in balance, so that it does not dominate your life, you end up winning in many ways, although it might not be monetarily or in terms of other material benefits. By keeping your sense of self intact and by not stooping below standards of decency, you always win in the development of your positive side.

You can learn to balance competition and cooperation and have them work together. For example, adults can work together in brainstorming on the job, and the result is that the company makes financial gains so that work positions are more secure and there is more room for advancement. Or, you can share in day care activities and in bringing children to child care.

The younger you are, the more likely you are competitive or are engaging in cooperative behavior for personal advantage. However, the focus on giving selflessly grows, and the child, teenager, and then adult become freer and more flexible in doing so. You become better at combining competition and cooperation For example, you become sensitive to the other person, but without sacrificing your sense of self and your interests.

People should view you as neither competitive, pushy, self-interested, and egotistical, nor as self-effacing, easy to push around, and without personality. Rather, people should view you as having a unified self in terms of this competition and cooperation. Ideally, you will become cooperative, constructive, and communicative while keeping control of a competitive "edge" that you might have without losing your assertiveness.

However, ideals do not always guide reality. If you are especially competitive and want to win at all costs, it will be difficult to be genuinely cooperative and build toward the integration of the two tendencies. Or, if you are only paying lip service to one side, there will be slip-ups and leakages that will give you away and you will get the opposite of what you are seeking.

The sooner that you balance these oppositions, the easier it will be to move beyond them and keep on a positive path. Competition and cooperation can cooperate and not be in competition. You might have to deal with the hardships that accompany any effort to grow, but the unity that accompanies success in the task will help heal the divide within. Finding balance in these types of oppositions is critical to self-growth. Facing life means engaging in its complexities and being open to possibility.


Life gains meaning when you gain perspective. Life peaks in meaning when you can place all perspectives in a unity. Life keeps its meaning when you try to improve the quality of the unity that you create.

Therapeutically, the task of joining opposites can proceed with shared conversations with the therapist about the oppositions. For example, once on the way to unity for competition and cooperation, it would be easier to deal with finding balance in other oppositions. You could navigate difficulties with issues such as security/ insecurity, dependence/ independence, and trust/ mistrust. Becoming a whole person involves dealing with the divides.

About the Author

Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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