Competition Makes Smart People Dumb

Do you feel a sense of competition when you attend meetings at work? Small-group meetings are a cornerstone of organizational activity. It’s hard to imagine working in any organization without them. But they are also the cause of lots of lamentation. People sometimes suggest that when meetings aren’t dull, they become a competition, with winners and losers.

A new study suggests that for some people, competition hurts performance.

If I’m Not Winning, Am I Dumb?

The study, at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, put smart people with similar IQs (average 126) in a group and had them perform “cognitive tasks,” while simultaneously giving each member feedback about how she or he was doing compared to the rest of the group.

One might expect similarly-smart people to perform similarly on these tasks. But that’s not what happened. Some of the group members began to perform notably worse after they started getting feedback on how they were doing compared to others in the group.

According to the institute’s press release:

Neither age nor ethnicity showed a significant correlation with performance or brain responses. A significant pattern did emerge along gender lines, however. Although male and female participants had the same baseline IQ, significantly fewer women (3 of 13) were in the high-performing group and significantly more (10 of 13) fell into the low-performing group.

“This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed,” said coauthor Steven Quartz, a professor of philosophy in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory of Caltech. “Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.”

Should Teammates Compete With Each Other?

The law is adversarial, but does it have to create a hyper-competitive workplace? Why do we spend so much time and energy on LSAT scores, undergrad GPAs, law school rank, class rank, etc., when nobody can really show that those numbers correlate to one’s ability to practice law? Why do women seem to need to be better than men to get the same rewards and opportunities? Must we be desperate to quantify performance, even if the numbers don’t mean anything, and if we suspect that constant competition can even hurt performance? Is there any way out of this mess?

More from the press release:

“So much of our society is organized around small-group interactions,” said [lead author Kenneth] Kishida. “Understanding how our brains respond to dynamic social interactions is an important area of future research. We need to remember that social dynamics affect not just educational and workplace environments, but also national and international policy-making bodies, such as the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.”

Let’s hope your meetings are more cooperative than those at the U.N. or Congress.

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  • Two things stick out to me in this really interesting post.

    The first is that it is so hard to downshift from the competitive nature and herd mentality in law school to real world. While one would hope that a collaborative approach to practicing law would be both rewarding and in the best interest of results for clients, it is a big change from the 1-man or 1-woman island you worked so hard to create while in law school. Kudos to those who can make that shift quickly, as it will serve you well in the long run.

    Second, I wonder to what extent the feeling of competition in meetings among colleagues comes from the fact that by nature, few associates receive meaningful constructive feedback from superiors or colleagues. Most associates are lucky to get thorough feedback at annual reviews, never mind on a regular basis. Without a trusted mentor in your organization, it is hard to know whether you are meeting the expectations or missing the mark. Often times, especially for A-type personalities or over-achievers, this reality can lead to feelings of self-consciousness, doubt, and overwhelm. Competing to be the best “clueless overwhelmed associate” is the natural (yet unreasonable) result.

    My take-away suggestion is that if associates can embrace working in a collaborative setting, prod for feedback (and be prepared for both negative and positive), and push through the fears of doubt, you will likely rise to the top without the negative feelings of being competitive.