Does Competition Enhance Performance?

by Robert Pondiscio
June 25th, 2010

Does competition enhance performance?  Or does it simply create more incentive to cheat?  That was precisely the question a pair of Spanish researchers set out to explore in an interesting experiment.  Fifty-five men and women spent a half-hour working on mazes on a computer.  Half the students were paid based on the number of mazes they completed “whereas the half in the ‘highly competitive’ condition were only paid per maze if they were the top performer in their group of six students,” according to the British Psychological Society’s research blog:

“The students in the highly competitive condition narrowed their eyes, rolled up their sleeves, focused their minds and cheated. That’s right, the students playing under the more competitive prize rules didn’t complete any more mazes than students in the control group, they just cheated more.”

The test subjects were able to cheat by switching to easier levels of difficulty or clicking on a button that offered solutions for the mazes (software on the computers monitored what the test subjects were actually doing).  Perhaps the most interesting finding: poor performers cheated the most.

‘It turns out that individuals who are less able to fulfill the assigned task do not only have a higher probability to cheat, they also cheat in more different ways,’ the researchers said. ‘It appears that poor performers either feel entitled to cheat in a system that does not give them any legitimate opportunities to succeed, or they engage in “face saving” activity to avoid embarrassment for their poor performance.”