Only Cooperation, Not Competition, Will Save Us

Cooperation not competition

We have an economic and political system that is geared towards working through competition- survival of the fittest. The “free” market has been heralded as the apex of social evolution- with its driving force (competition) being the most effective way of distributing wealth, resources, of catering for everyone’s needs, and of ensuring “progress”. If we’re all competing against one another without the messy interference of the state then only the best will survive and so we will all receive only the best. Anything holding us back will be improved, or removed.

The problem with this competitive outlook on life is that quite often the things “holding us back”, are people. They have families, friends, jobs, virtues, and potentials. When a company is outcompeted by its competitors, people lose jobs. Families go hungry. Of course, friendly competition in sports or hobbies is great, we have an urge to want to be the best and that’s all good fun. But to take that and apply it as a global economic system is a bit like me taking my thrill of betting on a roulette wheel and using it as the basis for our financial syt- oh wait…

Darwin’s theory of evolution may have given a natural law to the dogma of right wing elites, but the concept of competition had driven our economics and direction long before. Many love to point to the progresses made under capitalism during the 16th/17th/18th centuries- neglecting to mention how the large corporations of today were born out of cooperation with the state. The phrase “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” is at times a very apt description of Western progression. But by taking a wider look, our success as a species is unique amongst evolution. The way we “outcompeted” our evolutionary rivals, was by our ability to cooperate.

Many animals show signs of cooperation, of community, of perhaps even rudimentary “societies”, but none more so than human beings. Could we have built the giant cities of London and New York, or launched ourselves into space, or any of the other incredible achievements of our species without cooperating with one another?

We also need to be looking at what we mean today when we say “the best”. Is the most competitive, “the best”, drugs company the one that produces the most beneficial combatants to disease, or is it the one that manages to most aggressively market its products and maximise its profits? And which of the two leads to a brighter future for humanity?

The question also needs to be asked what the psychological effects on the individual and the wider effects on society are of this drive for competition that seems to infect every aspect of our lives. Increasing pressure at schools (the Times termed this a “mental health time-bomb”), meaning we don’t get to learn for the sake of learning- to enjoy knowledge and treasure it. Ever more loops to jump through trying to get a job, a promotion, achieve the best grades… A hostile world where selfish motivation is put first and stamping out competitors is seen as a virtue.

Numerous studies have been conducted by psychologists documenting detrimental effects of competition. Sherif et al (1961) found that competition between groups fosters a culture of hostility and prejudice towards those in the “out-group”. Vaughn (1938) concluded that competition is a result of a process of socialisation- i.e not something that comes naturally to human beings. And perhaps most importantly of all, Deutsch (1949) found that when he had groups working cooperatively or in competition, the ones working in cooperation did far better at their tasks.

Our species faces unprecedented threats, most of them of our own creation. Nuclear holocaust, depleting resources, climate change… competition is not the cure to these but the cause. We will only be able to find solutions to these problems by working together, not by becoming ever-more divided. Competition divides, competition has losers.

After intense competition between the Americans and the Russians, Neil Armstrong eventually landed on the moon, the first human being to ever have done so. The question that has always troubled me, however, was that if the two superpowers had not been in the midst of an ideological war and had actually cooperated- could we have reached the stars?


Deutsch, M. (1949). An experimental study of the effects of co-operation and competition upon group process. Human relations.

Sherif, M., Harvey, O., White, B., et al (1961) Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Vaughn, J., & Diserens, C. M. (1938). The experimental psychology of competition. Journal of Experimental Education.

Only Cooperation, Not Competition, Will Save Us

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