By CAROL TAVRIS
When Americans visit Japanese schools, or invite Japanese children to play with their own children, they often set up the quintessential competitive American game of musical chairs. And invariably they are shocked to observe that Japanese children hate this game. They cry. They won't play. They offer their last chance at a chair to ¬another. Exclude a child in each round? What sort of horrible game is that?
Both cooperation and competition are built into the human repertoire; it is fruitless to debate which is innate or "better." A more useful question is: What circumstances in society and culture promote the benefits of competition while minimizing its harms?
Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing
By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Twelve, 335 pages, $27.99
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman examine this question from every angle. In "Top Dog," they argue that competition "is the engine of evolution and the foundation of democracy," prompting innovation and discovery, but they also show how it can be maladaptive, fostering insecurity and a loss of ambition. They describe, for instance, what happened when the United States Air Force Academy instituted a program designed to help low-performing cadets achieve more, by putting them into groups with top students: The effort backfired because the low-performing cadets constantly felt inadequate. Eventually they created their own clique and took "refuge in their identity as low-performers," which in turn gave them permission not to excel.
"Top Dog" consists of a stew of studies from disparate disciplines on every aspect of competition, success, winning and losing. It aims to be scientific and anecdotal, scholarly as well as self-helpy. The research is voluminous, including everything from classic studies in social psychology to reductionistic and misleading sources such as Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain." From neuroscience to corporate culture, every possible factor that might determine who rises to challenges and who withdraws is here.
Yet, oddly, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. In their ambitious effort to be comprehensive, the authors have sacrificed a central story, a narrative core. Instead, they toss in ever more undigested data, covering biology, gender, schools and sports; external influences on competition (crowds, prizes, the home-field advantage); the difference between winning and not losing (two goals with profoundly different outcomes); collaborating in teams versus working solo; and one researcher's idea that each person has an IZOF (Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning). That is a partial listing.
My own IZOF began to flag at about the halfway mark because, in trying to write conversationally, the authors encrust their prose with chatty mannerisms ("We wanted to know—what makes someone good at that?"), one-sentence paragraphs, incessant dashes, exclamation marks and italics. ("The real difference was the psychological environment. . . . It wasn't the dancing that was stress-inducing. . . . People aren't judged on how they practice. . . .")
A more serious problem is that without a central narrative, "Top Dog" does a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. We learn that, to do their best, some people need to avoid stress, while others thrive on it. Competition enhances energy and creativity for some people but immobilizes others. "What's fascinating," the authors maintain, "is how the science can predict which category you will fall into. And the science also shows how people can improve their performance in competition, no matter which of those categories they began in." Given how many factors are involved, though, "the" science has its work cut out for it.
Nowadays, "the science" must involve the brain and the genetics. In their zeal to be au courant, the authors veer from the oversimplified to the overtechnical. At the former extreme, we learn that "entrepreneurs are special, wired that way from the fetal stages of development"; at the latter, we get excessive detail: "Heightened awareness that others are judging you," they write at one point, "is manifested in the 'mentalizing system'—increased neural activity in four discrete regions of the brain. [One] is the medial prefrontal cortex. . . . Another region is the left temporoparietal junction (1-TPJ). . . . The anterior cingulate cortex—the ACC—is constantly on the watch for errors in judgment." I'm glad something is.
Because every form of human behavior is influenced by genes, by learning and by the immediate environment, the authors' efforts to parcel out these effects occasionally enmeshes them in a thicket. "This next chapter is about the gene that determines how people respond to the stress and pressure of performing," they write. "The" gene? Turn the page and the authors acknowledge that "it is extremely rare that a single gene, all by itself, controls anything. Most traits are polygenic—controlled by many genes." Precisely, but then they argue that a single gene, the COMT gene, "affects whether people perform well under pressure and stress" and thus divides humanity into Worriers and Warriors. (Warriors don't worry, apparently.)
Finally, after a long discussion of the COMT gene, the authors caution: "Don't make the mistake of believing that competitive fire is entirely determined by a single gene." OK, I won't. But then they discuss smart kids who aren't good test-takers because "of being born with a different genotype." Yet then they report research showing that simply removing some of the pressure of a test by changing its title from "Intellectual Abilities Questionnaire" to "Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire" produces a big improvement in test scores. Therefore, they conclude, "the research doesn't say that those with the Worrier gene are doomed when thrown into a stressful situation." Whew.
For the determined reader, "Top Dog" does contain interesting discoveries and informative real-world illustrations of them. The discussions of gender differences are especially good: In sports, as Anson Dorrance's experience coaching women's soccer exemplifies, you don't get the best from women by insulting and yelling at them, as you might with men. And why don't more women run for political office? One answer, the authors maintain, is that men tend to be overconfident of their abilities and thus poor judges of risk: They will run for office even if they have virtually no realistic chance of being elected, whereas women compete primarily when they think there is a reasonable likelihood of winning. It was Han Solo, not Princess Leia, who said: "Never tell me the odds."
The authors describe (twice) James Carse's beautiful distinction between "finite" and "infinite" games, and their different consequences. Table tennis and Scrabble are finite games, but modern corporate life is an infinite game—no winner ever secure, no break in the contest, just enough rewards to create a hedonic treadmill in which players work as hard as they can to stay in the race, never mind getting ahead. Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman suggest that women handle infinite competitions better than men do, finding ways to recuperate and recharge without becoming emotionally and physiologically overwhelmed.
There are many other tasty bites in this stew, but perhaps because it contains so many ingredients, the reader may end up stuffed but not satisfied. "Healthy, successful, adaptive competitiveness is choosing what matters to you and fighting for it, while letting other challenges pass," the authors conclude. "Choosing when not to compete is essential to sustaining the energy for the battles that matter most." Surely a wise lesson, though probably not one that the anterior cingulate cortex can help us learn.—Ms. Tavris, a social psychologist,
is the author of "The Mismeasure
of Woman" and the co-author,
with Elliot Aronson, of "Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)."
A version of this article appeared February 16, 2013, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Talking a Good Game.