The Psychology of Winning and Competition

The reason we dislike other groups may have nothing to do with competition.

Posted Jun 08, 2018

 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)
Source: LeBron James Wiz by Keith Allison, Wikimedia (licensed under: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

NBA Finals

The fourth game of the 2018 NBA Finals has begun. The Golden State Warriors are leading their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-0. In other words, they might be crowned champions tonight. I was browsing a highly active “game-day thread” earlier today, and there were heated arguments about a couple of controversial calls from previous games in the series.

Someone had posted “You suck!” in big red letters. I don't know if that insult was meant for the member he was arguing with earlier, or for the opposing team’s whole fan base, but others seemed to ignore the poster till one person, perhaps as curious as I was, posted and asked him why — adding an emoji of a puzzled face for good measure.

The first person quickly replied, “Because we rock!”

I suppose the possibility did not occur to him that fans of both could rock. Or not rock. Or rock, but only a little. 


It was then that I started to think about Muzafer Sherif’s experiment, the one that I discussed in my other post.

In the famous Robber’s Cave study, Muzafer Sherif had found that mere competition between children who shared much in common, but who were randomly assigned to two different teams, could result in hostilities between them.1,2

It is not surprising, then, that I witnessed animosity in the interaction between the fans of two basketball teams.

But Sheriff had also observed something unexpected, something which I did not discuss in my previous article: Intergroup bias had begun to emerge even before the two groups started competing:

“The rattlers [one of the teams] didn't know another group existed in camp until they heard the eagles [the other team] on the ball diamond; but from that time on the outgroup figured prominently in their lives.”

Sherif goes on to say that the rattlers were eager to be the “first to challenge” the other group before even having met them.1

He further notes, “When the ingroup began to be clearly delineated, there was a tendency to consider all others [my emphasis] as outgroup.” In other words, rattlers did not care what kind of people were part of the other group — only that those people did not belong to this group.

But if competition is not the only reason for a negative attitude toward other groups, what else could cause hostilities between groups that do not even know each other?

Social Identity Theory

Henri Tajfel was a social psychologist who studied the development of conflicts between groups. Tajfel had been pondering the atrocities committed by the Nazis, trying to understand why ordinary Germans would have supported them.

Tajfel was searching for the basic conditions in which there would be no prejudice present in the relationship between two groups. But he was having difficulty finding such conditions.

What Tajfel did in his experiments was divide people into two groups, but only based on some meaningless and trivial criteria, such as the participants' tendency to overestimate the number of dots displayed on the screen, or their aesthetic preference for one of the two kinds of abstract paintings. 

The participants would then be asked to allocate money to other participants — one of whom belonged to their group, and one who belonged to the other group.

There would be no reason, Tajfel believed, that people in these randomly created groups would favor their own. And yet, again and again, he found that people were more likely to allocate money to people in their own group!3

The results were shocking. What reason could these people have for favoring their ingroup? These were clearly not natural groupings (e.g., based on gender, language, place of birth, etc); the participants did not even know each other.

Therefore, Tajfel concluded that mere categorization of people into groups was enough for prejudice to develop.

 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)
Source: Stephen Curry dribbling 2016 (cropped) by Keith Allison, Wikimedia (licensed under: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

But why?

According to Tajfel’s social identity theory, part of our self-esteem comes from our membership in groups. When one group identity happens to become salient, we become motivated to view our group in positive terms, and as a result, show ingroup favoritism or bias.4

In short, then, unlike Sherif, Tajfel concluded that the reason for hostilities between groups was not due to competition; it was due to categorization.

To return to the example that opened this article, when our identity as fans of a particular team, such as the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers, becomes salient, it becomes important for our self-esteem to see our team (and perhaps also the team’s fan base) as superior to other teams and their fans.  

So we must “rock,” and the other team and their fans must “suck.” Why? Because our mental health depends on it!

Copyright note: Photos by Keith Allison are licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


1. Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961) Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment. Norman, Oklahoma: University Oklahoma Book exchange.

2. Sherif, M. (1966) Group Conflict and Cooperation: Their Social Psychology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

3. Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 149–178.

4. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.