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on February 23, 2007
Having just finished No Contest: The Case Against Competition, fully twenty years after its first publication, I feel like someone coming late to a party, only to find few have arrived before me in what I expected to be a crowded gathering. Scanning the divergent and often passionate Amazon reviews offered on this provocative, original, and gentle but thoroughly radical critique of our society, I felt compelled to add my voice and ask, simply, did Adam Smith get it wrong?

However you might answer that question, now or after reading No Contest, you will agree that the implications of your own answer are considerable, for you and, perhaps, for us all. Your ideas about competition are fundamental to the way you will live your life each day, to the type of world you will work to create, and to how you will feel about and treat those of us who are around you.

Across twenty-five reviews of No Contest spanning a decade, the book garners a solid four out of five stars, but there is a divergence in these reviews that is telling and important. Amidst mostly five-star ratings and words of praise and encouragement for what is an excellent work, consistently about twenty percent of reviewers rank this book very low and offer commentary that is quite dismissive. These latter reviews seem, in some cases, to lack poignancy and clear expression, an infraction Kohn cannot be accused of, and some are quite hostile.

I bring up this persistent disparity of reactions to No Contest because it underscores a central hypothesis of Kohn's work: that competition and the competitive structures around us alters us. Kohn's assembled research suggests that competition makes us reactive, aggressive, closed to new ideas and inimical to alternatives, bound to the rules of the games we are made to play.

Competition, Kohn argues, makes us less sensitive, less productive, less creative, and perhaps less intelligent. Competition narrows our focus and makes us less able to see our frames of reference for what they are - frames. Ones that are in truth malleable and expandable, and as such, ultimately indefensible. Life in competitive structures, life in a competitive mindset, may even make us less engaged in life itself, as it almost certainly makes us less engaged in others and their lives.

I read No Contest on the recommendation of a friend, after a brief but lasting conversation on the practical virtues of cooperation. As a friend, even if we have not met, I will recommend this book to you too. I make this recommendation with the certainty that No Contest will at least give you an interesting perspective on modern life, that it might provoke and irritate you, and that it may, as other reviewers have noted, cause you to wake up and live differently each day. I certainly feel this third way, and think the book is worth reading, simply given its potential to affect you in this way.

As a book that compiles a diverse body of research, No Contest is technically impressive, especially given its seemingly uncharted subject. Even after twenty years, and even as it is disagreeable to some, I found the book extremely well planned, elegantly written, carefully reasoned, and finely passionate. For some, No Contest will be worth having for the bibliography alone, which is extensive. In fact, its assembled evidence and the startling conclusions they lead to is part of the potentially mind-altering nature of the book. No Contest was not what I expected, and likely will not be what you expect now, with divergent views and passionate reviews apt to continue for some time to come.

A few reviewers have criticized No Contest for not offering enough practical guidance, but I am content to be left to think, and think practically, about its many ideas and conclusions, on my own and with others. We all live in a practical world and so do need work at what we value, but we also need to wonder a bit: if cooperation is superior to competition in category after category of human affairs, why is there simply not more of it around us? Some might argue that cooperation is in fact there, but masked by the heavy and obvious icons of competitiveness that frame modern materialist society.

As I am affected and willing to consider this and the many other important questions the book engenders, perhaps you will be too. Game theory and computer modeling of the last two decades, coming after this book was published, may offer insights into the conditions under which competitive and cooperative structures win out, but as yet not a clear and recognizable path to the states of sustaining cooperation posed as possible and desirable by Kohn. (I would welcome being googled and corrected on this last point.)

One last thought: beginning in the 1970s, the organizational psychologists Chris Argyris and Donald Schon wrote about empirically far more common "model I" group dynamics and, also empirically, far more effective "model II" behaviors. I always was comfortable with these neat non-labels, and thought I understood what they entailed, tacitly attributing the difference to levels of individual and group stress. After reading No Contest, though, I am now far more inclined to think these human patterns should rightly be renamed for what they really are: "competitive" and "cooperative" group dynamics. I'll leave you to consider this idea, important for people working with others and suggestive of what you will encounter with No Contest.

To end somewhat near where I began, let me finish by saying that No Contest is an awakening for many people and an irritant and even an outrage for a few, probably to all who are disciples of Adam Smith, or deacons in the world his ideas have wrought. No Contest stirred in me both a child and an old man, each wiser in the way children and elders can be wise - in their propensity for innocence and in their indifference to headstrong heads - and I hope No Contest will be this for you and more.
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on March 5, 2003
A friend recommended this to me because it changed her life. It is changing mine as well. Like the fish who has suddenly become aware of the water around him, I have become aware of the competitive environment in which we live - and how that environment is slowly poisoning us.
Kohn defines competition as "mutually exclusive goal attainment" - a situation where someone wins only if others lose. This type of structure, by its very nature, erodes human relationships. Kohn is not asking us to do away with incentives or tests - he is asking us to stop using them to determine a "winner." Kohn shows that people in a cooperative setting will attain a goal with more efficiency and creativity than people in a competitive setting.
But what about market competitiveness and the benefits for consumers? Yes, but think of the goal, the driving force behind this: making more money than the next company. That means polluting the environment (cleaner is usually more expensive), exploiting workers (the so-called minimum wage is not enough for anyone to live on), and even committing fraud. As Kohn explains, the nature of competition means that the goal becomes the most important thing. Everything else is merely an obstacle; everyone else an enemy.
Sometimes I wish I hadn't read this book - it has thrown my view of the world upside down and made me question my work at a management consulting company. But I realize this is just the initial discomfort one feels after walking out of a dark room into the sunlight. The glare may hurt at first, but after your eyes have adjusted, you appreciate the new world you see around you. This book may hurt at first, but give it a chance and see if it doesn't change your world and your relationships for the better.
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on September 3, 2001
In this inspiring and well-researched book Alfie Kohn describes how we, in our compulsion to rank ourselves against one another, turn almost everything into a contest (at work, at school, at play, at home). Often, we assume that working toward a goal and setting standards for ourselves can only take place if we compete against others. By perceiving tasks or play as a contest we often define the situation to be one of MEGA: mutually exclusive goal attainment.
This means: my success depends on your failure. Is this wise? No! Is this inevitable? No! This book brilliantly shows how: 1) competitiveness is NOT an inevitable feature of human nature (in fact, human nature is overwhelmingly characterised by its opposite - co-operation), 2) superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence (because competition often distracts people from the task at hand, the collective does usually not benefit from our individual struggles against each other), 3) competition in sports might be less healthy than we usually think because it contributes to the competitive mindset (while research shows that non-competitive games can be at least as enjoyable and challenging as competitive ones), 4) competition does not build good character; it undermines self esteem (most competitors lose most of the time because by definition not everyone can win), 5) competition damages relationships, 6) a competitive mindset makes transforming of organizations and society harder (those things requiring a collective effort and a long-term commitment).
I think many people reading this book will recognize in themselves their tendency to think competitively and will feel challenged and inspired to change. And that's a good thing. Our fates are linked. People need to, and can choose to, build a culture in which pro-social behaviors and a co-operative mindset are stimulated. The competitive mindset can be unlearned. By developing a habit to see and define tasks as co-operative we can defy the usual egoism/altruism dichotomy: by helping the other person you are helping yourself.
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on April 16, 2005
I read Kohn's book 10 years ago and it changed the way I think about the world. Our society is becoming more uncivil and rude, sports and schools more violent. Kohn predicted it, and his work becomes more relevent every day.

Studies of school shootings by Dr. James Gilligam, M.D., concluded that in every case the perpetrators had been subjected to years of ridicule and humiliation. Elliot Aronson of Stanford calls the atmosphere in public high schools "poisonous.' Aronson believes that the primary cause of hostile school environments is wide-spread obsession with competition. Everyone but the athletes and cheerleaders becomes "rejects." Aronson proved that bullying could be stopped (within two weeks!) after he convinced teachers to ditch their competitive framework and assign cooperative projects. The new structure broke down cliques between kids from different racial and ethnic groups, and from varying beliefs. They did something unheard of in modern life--they became friends!

Kohn's book is a wake-up call for every educator, parent and business person who swallows the competition paradigm without question. Research has shown repeatedly that cooperation is better for performance, self-esteem and relationships. Despite the mythology around competition it DOESN"T build self-confidence. Competition is linked to shallowness and anxiety. (Skill attainment and good parenting build self-confidence).

Ask yourself; "What PRICE have your kids paid in the competitive paradigm?" Are they healthier, more happy, more self-confident, kinder, more curious, well rounded, more interested in learning? What interests have they given up? What friendships ended? Are they thriving or anxious about the next event?

There are other ways. Competition is JUST a belief system. Ask a modern biologist or anthropologist. They don't believe anymore that competition is the primary organizing principle. Life is fundamentally adaptive and cooperative. Since Darwin's theories were turned into "survival of the fittest"--a term coined by Spencer, an economist, and one that Darwin never used, we've been blindly following a paradigm without data.

Competition is toxic and deep down we know it. The research has been done, the answers are in. If you're open-minded enough to question the beliefs you were taught in 5th grade, you'll read this book.

Kohn's had the courage to stand up and say, "There's a better way. "

He should be a national hero.
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on August 1, 1998
Alfie Kohn has written a masterwork of social psychology in his book, No Contest. Assailing on of our society's most sacred cows, he argues convincingly that common sense notions of competition -- that it is innate, is fun, builds character, and increases productivity -- are all myths. Drawing upon a voluminous amount of sociological and psychological research, Kohn slowly dissects the seedy world of competition and exposes its unsavory reality. Competition hurts productivity in all but the most mindless of tasks; it does build character, but invariably the wrong kind; it is not an innate human instinct but a product of controllable social forces. Last, the notion of competition being fun is the greatest insult and immorality to humanity. For the whole point of MEGA (mutually-exclusive goal attainment -- the fundamental component of competition) is to succeed based on the failure of someone else. Unfortunately, Kohn gives the reader little to go on in the way of! changing from a competitive to a cooperative society, except that people should shun competition and promote cooperative behaviors -- something easier said than done considering most competition is forced upon us. (Kohn offers more in the way of solutions in his other book, Punished by Rewards). Still, Kohn provides tremendous food for thought; and if his objective was to force the reader to, at the very least, reconsider the dubious value of competition in social interactions and institutions, he has done his job exceedingly well.
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on June 1, 2001
Alfie Kohn's "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" (1986) was an unexpected find. I've been a believer in the free market system, with products getting better and cheaper through competition. That certainly seems to work, especially in computer hardware -- but this book has turned my thinking around. Hundreds of studies have shown that once a goal is established, cooperation will always produce better results (and better people) than competition. If two cooperative groups compete, results are usually due to the cooperative dynamics and are actually weakened by the inter-group competition. People working for pleasure and mutual support will be more creative and more productive than those working to best others. Also happier. Kohn carefully dispels arguments that competition is productive, necessary, or acceptable in moderation. He tears apart sports as a social model, showing that cheating is inherent and encouraged rather than an unfortunate aberration. ("We try to beat others in an effort to prove our own worth. Ultimately this strategy reveals itself as futile, since making our self-esteem contingent on winning means that it will always be in doubt. The more we compete, the more we *need* to compete.") Competition in all forms is shown to be toxic to individuals and to society. ("For enjoyment to derive wholly from the process of beating another person is more than a little disturbing...", and "Despite this evidence ... we continue trying to succeed at the price of other people's failure. Often *we* are those 'other people' who fail, but this scarcely diminishes our quest for victory or our belief that competition is good for us.")
You couldn't ask for a much better explanation of what's wrong with US culture. (Nearly all other societies are less competitive, and some are almost completely cooperative.) Kohn doesn't have much to say about how we can overhaul our culture, other than by substituting non-competitive games for what we currently teach children. He does suggest that our reduction in racial and gender discrimination shows we can also end competitive indoctrination. More immediately, I suggest that each of us look for ways to motivate our subordinates cooperatively rather than competitively.
Kohn doesn't address two questions that interest me: 1) Will competitive societies (and their sports-trained armies) tend to absorb non-competitive neighbors? Darwin saw competition everywhere in nature, but there are many species where cooperative behaviors are common and may have "won out" over millions of years. Will human greed, aggression, and [Western? male?] dominance structures allow cooperative societies room to develop? 2) Do competitive companies and societies set more goals, and more ambitious goals, than cooperative groups, outweighing the inherently low efficiency of competitive behavior? This would explain why competitive societies such as the US have progressed faster than non-competitive ones such as China. Something to think about. Meanwhile, I don't believe I can convince my daughter to drop out of competitive sports -- or even to read the book, which is rather dense and scholarly.
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VINE VOICEon August 30, 2000
Mr. Kohn presents an excellent argument against the "carrot and stick" methods traditionally found in behaviorism. In fact, he appears to challenge the entire philosophy and behaviorist approaches because humans are not just a set of conditioned responses. Mr. Kohn's argument appears to be focused on helping people develop an intrinsic gauge to determine and develop their own standards and to take pride in what they are reasonably able to accomplish.
Mr. Kohn's theory is well-researched and is for me, 100% believable. His use of language and examples are effective in communicating his message. He appears to have a genuine sympathy for humankind in general and seems to feel that people will do their best provided they are encourged to do so for their own growth and development and not at the expense of others.
I have always believed that COMPETITION KILLS COOPERATION and that creating rivalry among people often undermines the outcome in the long run.
Dispensing what I call "lollipop" awards, that is, uniform awards given to all participants is wasteful. Nobody's performance is being distinguished, so therefore an award is asinine and meaningless. Although "lollipops" are awarded with the best of good intentions, they are unrealistic. They fly in the face of what awards really stand for -- noting exceptional performance. Lollipops are not a panacea for one's basic desire to do well and be recognized for an outstanding performance. No playing field can ever be level and merely passing out "lollipops" is patronizing and insulting. I, for one, abhor "lollipops" and I could never accept such an award/prize in good conscience. For me, it has to be earned/won fairly and honestly or it just doesn't count. It has to be a REAL award that was justly earned.
I have always wished that prizes and awards would cease to exist. All they do is breed rivalry and negative competition. I feel they often undermine cooperation and in many cases preclude cooperation or motivation. I personally find my motivation plummet at the mere mention of prizes. Prizes make me not want to perform because of the negative competition involved.
Mr. Kohn does an excellent job of defining the "intrinsic" rewards. Such inner gauges allow a person to feel good about their accomplishments and receiving positive feedback is always a critical element. My favorite uncle was a master at intrinsic rewards -- just knowing he felt you had done a good job was a major ego booster. His method was one of gentle encouragement and his philosophy was that if one expects the best, then on can reasonably believe that they will get the results they want. My uncle did not dispense any awards and he had a very strong sense of self and ethics. This highly gifted man has imparted a REAL gift -- the gift of hard work and taking pride in it.
This book is an excellent statement to the above. I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
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on January 18, 2000
if there were one book that i could insist be read by everyone on earth, this would be that book, without question. it is more than a little surprising how, after reading a book, the point of which was to critically examine a mindset which is pervasive, certainly in western society, and i think throughout the world, anyone might raise the objections that have been raised in some of the more negative reviews. kohn is right on to observe that favorable views of competition are so entrenched within our collective worldview that most of us CAN NOT EVEN CONCEIVE of the validity of an argument which suggests that it is that mindset which is in fact responsible for much of what is wrong. kohn offers specific and convincing refutation to each and every objection raised within the context of the negative reviews of the book. his work NEEDS to be seriously engaged.
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on December 1, 2005
Kohn's main contribution is that in a scholarly and systematic way, with excellent examples, he debunks the 4 main myths that prevail in our culture about competition, which are: (1) competition is part of human nature; (2) competition is more productive; (3) competition is more enjoyable; and (4) competition builds character. None of these are true, but the larger culture (i.e., those in power) promote competition and these myths to keep us in a winning-losing paradigm (because it keeps the winners in power). I must admit that when I first read his book, I was so taken, that it formed the basis of a talk I gave at the Washington Ethical Society (in Wash. DC), which has since been reprinted in a phamplet, available online under "Competition: An Inhuman Activity". In my talk, I gave some suggestions (some serious, some not so serious) about how to move from our current, over-the-top competitive society, to something more cooperative and life-enriching.
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on December 30, 1999
I have read this book during my thesis research for MSBA. It was an interesting book at first, then the more I read the deeper I involved to decide that it will be part of my thesis. Alfie Kohn is one of the rare and honest intellectual who speaks some truth these days. I had experienced and lived with most of my life on the competition concept; therefore, I believed I understood what it is. The fact is competition was not my human nature; it was products of social education and activities that I am living in it. Competition is a way we use to nurture our fear, greed, desire, violence and to comfort our animal instinct. All these traits are both born out of wrong concept of education and social strucutre for centuries. As a product of it, I embraced it dearly in the past. Only, when I went through years of living in it and thinking, observing, reevaluating my world view that I recognized that I was imprisoned or been programmed defectively by the environemnt I grew in. Competition is one of those defects. I fell easily to sympathy with Mr. Kohn thougthts because of my proven past. I did my research surveys with more than 30 big corporations on this same topics. All of them either refused or ignored to respond, but one from Honda North American Inc. I know it needs a great effort to uproot a centuries-old trait and may be the same amount of time to do so for all mankind to recognite the damages of competition to our lives and our world economic properity. But I do believe we get a start now with people like Mr. Kohn.
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