Cooperation Rules Competition

Competition lives within cooperation.
Graphic by Chuck Bordman Creative Commons License

To be human is to be cooperative. I’m not sure you can prove it, but it’s actually a more proven human trait than being competitive. This is the research Alfie Kohn reveals in his 1986 book No Contest. It’s gotten me thinking about cooperation vs competition.

Alfie Kohn’s exploration of competition is fascinating. I’ve just started the book, but will report back in future posts what I learn. I’m drawn to the book because, more and more, I see that competition can’t be what ultimately governs us. But it’s so present in our lives it’s fooled me for years. I’ve come to the conclusion that competition is dependent on cooperation.

I’ve mentioned similar thinking in previous blog posts. Kohn’s ideas have been applied to business by author, business man, and worker-owner, John Abrams who studied the topic in his book Companies We Keep. See my previous post about his book. Another previous blog post reconsiders competition in the food movement.

What strikes me most about games and competition are the rules that are needed. There must be collaboration to create the rules of competition determined through mutual understanding. Defining winners and losers, if that’s what you want to call them, is a structure of collaboration.

Aided by my illustration for this post, I’m suggesting that competition exists within cooperation.

Trust is a major factor in all this. It’s amazing how much trust is needed for things to work — a transaction in business, for example, is based on a lot of mutual understanding. Or driving on a highway relies on other drivers to follow generally understood rules and drive predictably. That predictability also creates tolerance for that unpredictable, competitive driver weaving through traffic.

And, of course, all of this trust/collaboration/competition gets exploited (see Machiavelli and Edward Bernays). But the trust we build with each other is power. Cheating and propaganda need that trust. So, while winning gets defined for us daily by media and advertising, remember how cooperative we all are and how much you contribute to creating the rules!

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