Competition is stressful, but many regard it as a powerful driver of personal growth. Competitive fire has been praised for the success of political candidates, Olympic athletes, and champion chess players who reached the top by racing someone else. But what we rarely talk about are people who do great without competing against others. In fact, external competition can have a terrible impact on our performance. Self-competition is much more productive.
Researchers Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson conducted an experiment with 124 Princeton University students. The first group were asked to share which high school they’d attended before Princeton, and how many of their high school classmates were also at Princeton. “This was intended to make most test-takers feel (…) that they were lucky to be at Princeton, and that they had barely made the bar for admittance,” Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson wrote.
That first group was asked to take a test labelled as an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire.” Why this test title? “They wanted the test’s title to be threatening to the students, to make the students fear that, if they did poorly, the test would reveal they lacked the true ability to be at Princeton.”
The second group was asked about their high school only after they took the test, and the test was labelled as an “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire”—way less threatening and stress-inducing.
Students in the first group got 72% of their answers right, while those in the second group answered 90% of the questions correctly. By mildly influencing the competitive stress felt by the students, the researchers “were able to engineer an 18% difference in their test scores” explain Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson.
So… Is competition bad for our performance? Not quite so.