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Being Competitive Can Make You a Jerk

2013 March 4
by Eric Horowitz

Parents who have multiple children often settle on an important rule for giving gifts: When it comes to non-requested gifts (i.e. souvenirs from a trip, but not a birthday present), every child gets the same thing. The goal is to avoid a situation where one child decides they want the red t-shirt rather than the blue or green t-shirt, followed by all the other children deciding they want the red one too. Growing as one of three boys, in my family the desire to have what your brother wanted just so he couldn’t have it often arose while playing board games. For example, games of Risk were known to begin with the entirety of two opposing militaries battling over the two-army Australian continent bonus from their strongholds in Eastern and Western Australia.

Sibling quarreling aside, there’s still the question of whether the desire to acquire something so somebody else can’t have it is a broader element of human nature (or at least WEIRD human nature.) According to a new study led by Cornell’s Emily Zitek, the answer is yes, but only if the person is highly competitive, and only when both competitors can’t end up with the same option.

When individuals in competitive situations learn the stated preference of their opponent, their own choice depends on their competitiveness and on whether they are in an inclusive- choice situation (in which both competitors can end up with the same option) or an exclusive-choice situation (in which they cannot). We obtained this predicted interaction in an imagined video game challenge (Studies 1 and 3), cooking contest (Study 2), and March Madness bracket competition (Study 4). Highly competitive people copied their opponent’s choices in exclusive-choice situations, and seemed to do this because they wanted to frustrate their opponent (Studies 3 and 4).

Because one of the rules of this blog is that I lavish special attention on any experiment made more ecologically valid by quirk in Street Fighter II, it’s worth describing the initial experiment in greater detail. First, participants were told they had the option to choose either Ken or Ryu for an upcoming Street Fighter II battle, and that their opponent preferred to be Ryu. As any Gen X- or Y-er knows, there is no chance to gain an advantage through your selection because Ken and Ryu have nearly identical moves, and therefore a Ken-Ryu matchup provides the perfect context for an experiment about symbolic choices. In the “exclusive choice” condition participants were told there would be a coin flip if both players chose the same fighter. In the “inclusive choice” condition participants were told that both players could choose the same fighter. As predicted, in the exclusive condition participants who had more self-reported competitiveness were significantly more likely to chose Ryu than non-competitive participants. In the inclusive condition, competitive participants were actually more likely to choose Ken, although the difference between competitive and non-competitive participants was not statistically significant.

In a follow up experiment the results held when competitiveness was manipulated using a competition between rival colleges, and a third experiment found that participants were more likely to mirror their opponent’s preference only when they were competitive, in an exclusive-choice situation, and their opponent chose their option rather than having it assigned to them. This suggests that the decision to mirror an opponent’s choice is driven by the desire to frustrate them rather than by the scarcity of the option.

So, is the “same gift for everybody” rule a good idea? According the study, it is if your kids are competitive (and you have no desire to teach them a lesson about not getting what you want.) The findings also suggest that depending on how choices are set up, there’s the potential to foil your competitive opponents by engaging in some reverse psychology tomfoolery. But most of all the study is more evidence that when humans want to win, they’re not above toiling in the gray areas to gain any advantage they can.

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Zitek, E., & Monin, B. (2013). “That’s the one I wanted”: when do competitors copy their opponents’ choices? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43 (2), 293-305 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00999.x

One Response leave one →
  1. Brenden permalink
    March 4, 2013

    After reading this article i can relate 100%. I have two older brothers and growing up my parents always treated us the same. Whenever its a 1 on 1 situation parents tend to look past the fairness between brothers and sisters. Parents tend to stress more in situations like this because if the brother or sister were to find out they got a toy without them, it all comes down on the mom or dad. Stress, a negative state when a persons ability to cope is hopeless. In a situation such as this, its plays a major role.

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