Does Competition Improve Performance?

Does competition improve performance? Or does it simply create more incentives to cheat? This is a question that lies at the heart of choice and competition policies in education and programs to publish school results and league tables.

An interesting experiment that is relevant to this question is reported in a recent edition of The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest.

Two Spanish researchers had 33 men and 32 women at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona spend 30 minutes completing on-screen mazes. Half the students were paid according to how many 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.

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.

To be more specific, the female students in the highly competitive condition cheated more. That is, although across both conditions there was no overall difference between men and women in the amount they cheated, only women responded to the competition intensity by cheating more. The researchers dug deeper into their results and actually this wasn’t a gender issue. Competition increased cheating specifically among poorer performers and it just happened that the poorer performers tended to be female.

How did the researchers measure cheating? After a brief practice, the students were told to continue completing mazes on level 2 difficulty, but they could choose to break the rules by switching to an easier level. The game also gave the option of clicking a button to be guided through the maze solutions. Finally, the students could lie at the end on a score sheet about how many mazes they’d completed. Earlier the researchers had loaded a spy programme on the computers. This took a screen shot on each mouse click, thus revealing the students’ true actions.

“It turns out that individuals who are less able to fulfil 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.”

The full reference for the study is: Schwieren, C. & Weichselbaumer, D. 2010. Does competition enhance performance or cheating? A laboratory experiment Journal of Economic Psychology, 31 (3), 241-253.

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