Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 07, 2020

Primal Instinct

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It may have its roots in that most basic human drive: survival. If you didn’t win against that saber-toothed tiger or neighboring tribe, you really lost. The saber-toothed tiger may be extinct, but those feelings haven’t gone away.

It Feels So Good

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Your desire to win could be related to a chemical in your brain called dopamine, which is linked to pleasure. Besting your buddy on the golf course not only gives you bragging rights, it also triggers a good feeling in the reward area of your brain. And a study of male mice showed that their testosterone levels got progressively higher each time they won, which made them more likely to win future fights.

We Learn From It

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Besides pleasant feelings, winning also gives you good info for the next round. And on the other side of the table, your competitor’s failures spark not only those reward signals in your brain, but learning signals as well. 

Political Battlegrounds

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Our democracy thrives on competition. The more hotly contested an election, the more interested and involved we are. But the outcome of a tight race puts a lot more people on the losing side. 

The Great Debate

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Debate is a part of life. Some researchers say we go back and forth with one another to learn and make better decisions. But one school of thought says we don’t do it to get smarter or end up with a perfect solution. We argue to bring people to our way of thinking: We argue to win.

Some Crave Competition

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You know the type. “Well, he’s really competitive,” or “Wow, she’s out to win.” Many people who seem especially competitive are driven by that primal need to win, but there could be other reasons behind it. They might see it as a chance to get better at something by comparing themselves to others, or they might think the competition will make them work harder and, in turn, bring out their best.

Competitive Gender Gap

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In general, studies show that women don’t like competition as much as men. It’s not that women are afraid of losing -- the theory is that men are a bit overconfident. That difference may be a good thing, though. A study of 42 countries found that societies are less happy when both genders are highly competitive.

Winning Through Others

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There’s a term for getting behind a winning team: “basking in reflected glory.” It means you get to enjoy a victory even though you may not have done anything but cheer: “We won, we won!” On the flip side, if your team doesn’t win, you don’t want any part of it: “Those bums lost again!”

The Bummer of Second Place

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After the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, researchers found that athletes who finished third in an event -- and earned bronze medals -- were much happier than those who finished second and got silver. The silver medalists may have been let down because they thought they had a chance at winning gold, while bronze medalists were happy simply to make it onto the medal stand.

The Lengths We’ll Go

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People who don’t do a task well are a lot more likely to cheat if there’s pressure to win. Whether it’s a card up your sleeve or copied sections of another’s term paper, it’s usually done for one of two reasons: to save face or to win no matter what.

The Downside of Winning

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If you’re so wrapped up in a sport that you’re not happy with yourself unless you do well in it, that’s not healthy. Taking competition too far can make you not much fun to be around -- you might be too aggressive, for example.

Too Much Winning

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Researchers created what they called a hypercompetitive attitude scale (HCA) and found that extremely competitive people tend to be self-absorbed and not trusting, among other negative personality traits. If that sounds like a lot of people you know, that’s not surprising. They also reported that hypercompetitiveness is a part of American life.

When Parents Go Too Far

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An obsession with winning often comes from parents. You know, the loud ones at your kid’s soccer games? Coaches say pushy parents are a major problem. A national survey of tennis coaches said 36% of parents actually hurt their kids’ athletic development.

A Little Perspective

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A debate on the value of competition has raged for years, especially when it comes to kids. Competition and a desire to win can drive you to be more successful, but that only goes so far. An unhealthy need to win can affect your happiness, stress levels, and self-esteem. In one study, children who were told to do their best and look for new ways to do certain activities were more motivated than kids who were told they should try to do the activities better than the other kids.

Competition vs. Cooperation

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It might be a good idea to steer children to work with others toward goals rather than against one another, according to some social scientists. Kids may feel better about themselves, and there’s no chance their self-esteem will be tied too closely to winning a spelling bee or a baseball game.

A Nod to the Non-Competitive

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People who don’t worry much about winning may be better off. While competition may bring out the best in some of us -- and winning certainly feels good -- cooperation can help us communicate better, trust others more, and accept people who are different.

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