Animal conflict, or why we compete

If you follow triathlons you’ve heard of Team Hoyt, a father who is an incredible athlete and a son with cerebral palsy. The dad has pushed (on special bikes and strollers) or pulled (swimming, towing a boat behind him) his son through six Ironman competitions and more than two dozen Boston Marathons. It’s an amazing story, and the videos on their website will make grown men cry.

Yet it beckons the question, why?

We debated with some friends this weekend the meaning of Team Hoyt, and whether American culture in particular is becoming split between the weak and the strong, the TV-watchers and Internet intellectuals, those who sit comfy eating donuts and those who train to get their body fat down to 6%. Our society has bifurcated between the lazy and motivated. Could it be the lazy are now right?

Sociologists suggest competition is one of four main forms of social interaction — the others being conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Darwin said competition was fundamental, the struggle for existence without which species would not survive. Machiavelli said it was the root of society, a war against all. Adam Smith expanded competition beyond the individual to our collective market intelligence, an invisible hand that guides society’s balance and growth. All suggest the world is not in equilibrium, and as we seek resources for ourselves, we must grasp for more.

Which poses an enormous conflict: If competition is good, and required to survive, and leads to progress, why does its fighting-against-others nature land at odds with the great spiritual and psyche beliefs of our time? Christianity’s turn the other cheek, Buddhism’s trascendental awareness, Maslow’s self-actualization at the top of the pyramid, and Freud’s Super Ego reigning in childish impulses all suggest higher levels of morality require turning competition off. Competition is a selfish impulse to pull ourselves ahead of others, to be faster, to gain more resources, to win fame, to succeed where others fail — and as such harms others, something truly civilized beings should not do.

Could it be that competition may no longer be needed? Not long ago the world was a dangerous and brutal place. We are only a few generations removed from days when Roman soldiers went to war with sharp blades to hack their opponents into meat, when tribal victory meant killing all the other villagers, when disease could decimate cities and medicine was witchcraft. We still yearn to fight, because our parents had to. Like animals salivating at the scent of blood, we can’t turn the instinct off.

Which makes competition a force like gravity we cannot control. In 1938, psychologists James Vaughn and Charles Diserens of the University of Chicago wrote “the fact of competition is scarcely more psychological than the movement of the balls on a pool table when the initial player breaks the set. To a spectator the balls may seem to compete more or less in their progress toward the other end of the table. There is interference and modification of movement, but no control or awareness of the process on the part of the ball. It is a phenomenon of the resolution of physical forces.”

If so, we are all small variables acting through competitions as physical forces in the great hive mind of human society. We’re subatomic particles that can’t help but be flipped negative with an electrical charge. We act like ants, rushing to lift more load, somehow building a colony whose purpose we do not see clearly. We hate conservatives or liberals, taxes or military, our neighbors or the illegal aliens from next door (who, we fear, may take more of our resources). We are driven by instinct to succeed, even if such success has no logical merit, even when we’ve reached a saturation point in resources where we no longer have to strive for food or shelter, even when the definition of success means taking something away from the other.

It’s a beautiful thing, to strive so hard with so little logic. Team Hoyt, your journey confuses me. Inspired, I’m going for a run to beat some illusion in my mind.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.


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