Does having more competitors lower the motivation to compete?

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Imagine that you’re taking a test in a large public hall. Obviously, your knowledge and confidence will determine your score, but could the number of people around you have an influence too? According to psychologists Stephen Garcia from the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor from the University of Haifa, the answer is yes. They have found that our motivation to compete falls as the number of competitors rises, even if the chances of success are the same.

The simple act of comparing yourself against someone else can stoke the fires of competition. When there are just a few competitors around, making such comparisons is easy but they become more difficult when challengers are plentiful. As a result, the presence of extra contenders, far from spurring us on by adding extra challenge, can actually have the opposite effect. Garcia and Avishalom call this the “N-effect” and they demonstrated it through a number of experiments.

First, they showed that US students tended to score more highly in SAT tests in states where there were fewer people on average at each testing venue. For each state, they compared SAT scores in 2005 with the total number of test-takers divided by the number of venues, and adjusted the figures for factors such as education budget, general performance on the SATs and so on. A similar analysis of scores from the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) revealed the same pattern – a greater density of test-takers led to lower average scores.

Obviously, this is a very crude analysis. For a start, crowded testing venues could also be rife with distractions that could lie behind a dip in performance. Garcia and Avishalom knew that they had to come up with better evidence, so they ran an experiment.

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They approached 74 students on their own, and asked them to complete a short quiz as quickly and accurately as possible. They were told that they were up against either 10 or 100 other students, and the top 20% would receive the princely sum of five dollars. Those who were pitched against a hypothetical 9 contenders completed the quiz in 29 seconds – significantly faster than the 33 seconds taken by those who were competing against 99.

This is clear example of the N-effect, of people behaving with different intents depending on how many others they thought they were competing against (none of whom were actually present). Garcia and Avishalom believe that the N-effect depends on people’s propensity to compare themselves against their peers. The easier and more tangible those comparisons are, the more fuel there is for competition.

To demonstrate that, they told 50 students that they would have a week to win $100 by adding as many Facebook friends as possible. They found that the students felt more motivated to compete when facing 10 competitors compared to 10,000, and they were also more likely to compare themselves against the others within the smaller contest. The number of competitors predicted the students’ motivations to compete, but that association disappeared after adjusting for their tendency to compare themselves with others.

This same experiment allowed them to rule out the possibility that the students were more motivated in the smaller group, simply because they thought the task would be easier. They certainly felt that way (albeit wrongly – in both cases, the prizes went to the top 20% and the students understood that) but it didn’t affect their behaviour. Adjusting for this perception of difficulty didn’t strongly affect the link between number of competitors and motivation.

Garcia and Avishalom admit that there are probably many other factors that lie behind the N-effect (and you may want to posit your own theories in the comments) but certainly, sizing yourself up against your peers is one of them. It’s also unclear how far the effect extends. What are the smallest group sizes where the effect becomes apparent? When groups get larger, do you need larger differences to stimulate the effect? And does the effect apply across all forms of competition?

The answers to these questions will have to wait, but for now, Garcia and Avishalom suggest a couple of areas where the N-effect should be considered. In competitive workplaces (such as sales teams), workers may be more motivated and productive if they work in small branch offices rather than in one large, central location. In the education sector, the N-effect suggests that students may try harder in smaller classrooms (quite apart from the benefits of increased individual attention), and that they may even score slightly higher in exams if they are tested in smaller venues.

Reference: Garcia, S., & Tor, A. (2009). The -Effect: More Competitors, Less Competition Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02385.x

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